Ads Hope to Inject U.S. School Challenges Into White House Race

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

Amid a presidential campaign dominated by debate about the economy and the war in Iraq, an advertising campaign scheduled to debut in Northern Virginia and elsewhere tomorrow is seeking to spotlight challenges facing U.S. schools.

A 30-second television spot shows a blond-haired boy raising the flags of dozens of countries, including Finland and South Korea and Japan, onto one flagpole as ominous orchestral music plays in the background. In a voiceover, actress Jamie Lee Curtis says: "This boy's future isn't looking so good. The schools in every one of these countries are outperforming ours."

In the final shot, an overcast sky looms behind the flagpole and the Stars and Stripes ripples at the bottom.

The $5 million "One Nation Left Behind" campaign is being launched by Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan organization formed a little more than a year ago to boost political discourse about education -- a topic that has received sporadic attention from the two major presumptive presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

The group has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropic groups.

The flag-waving theme is meant to foreshadow the Beijing Olympics, where Americans will be focused on winning, said Marc Lampkin, executive director of the organization.

"If China and India were running away" with the medals, "we would be outraged." The campaign aims to create a similar fervor around what he described as a crisis in education and the ability of the United States to compete internationally in business and technology.

The commercial shows how the United States stacks up against 30 other industrialized countries, based on the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, an exam that ranked U.S. students 25th in math and 21st in science.

Some analysts question the significance of international results, saying a nation's education system should be judged on other measures. But Strong American Schools points to such test results and high U.S. high school dropout rates as evidence of a problem.

It advocates more uniform and rigorous academic standards, more time for students in school, and differential pay to help recruit and retain quality teachers.

The organization said the campaign will start tomorrow in seven battleground states and will use radio, print and online ads as well as television ads.

Northern Virginia was selected because it is emerging as a key campaign region for Obama and McCain and because its population is politically engaged. But the area has well-funded and well-regarded schools, so an educational crisis might not be readily apparent to some.

George Wolfe, director of the Academy of Science in Loudoun County, a magnet school formed in 2005, said he applauds efforts to improve public schools but thinks there are some positive trends in math and science education.

His school has hosted delegations from six countries who want to know how U.S. students learn to innovate and think creatively, skills that help give the United States an edge in technology and business.

"As a math and science educator, I'm more interested in how they think, not how they perform on a standardized test," he said.

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