Obama's Cautious Path to Education Reform

Article excerpt

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION IS TAKING STEPS toward education reform. Given the political noise around Iraq and Afghanistan, stimulus and jobs, health care, and financial regulation, the education issue has been a mere trill note. Yet, the effort to improve the performance of our K-12 education system may have greater long-lasting impact on the quality of life of future generations.

It is now common wisdom that we live in an era of globalization. While this is true, we are only beginning to feel the economic effects ofthat global era. Increasingly, we will live in a world where billions of people will be consuming, producing, and trading across boundaries- where choice of work location and residence will induce massive population flows, where commuting patterns will be not just local but international, and where individual choice of where to live and work will erode the concept of national sovereignty.

In such a world, employers can and will locate wherever skilled workers concentrate; and the ability of individuals to find the high-skilled jobs essential to a high standard of living will depend more on their wits and skills and less on their family heritage or country of origin. If an individual has the education and training essential to take advantage of this global twenty-first-century marketplace, he or she can find opportunities somewhere in the world. Those without an education will be locked in place, their zip code of birth detennining their station in life.

Those nations capable of offering a twenty-first-century education will draw those with a burning desire to improve their lives. The countries incapable of doing so will be left with declining standards of living, as well as a loss of creative and productive capacity. For them, Atlas will have shrugged.

It is not clear which kind of nation we will be.

For the last half of the twentieth century, we were the land of job opportunity and economic freedom, driven by a K-12 education system that was the envy of the world. But now, our high school graduation rates and quality of high school graduates are, by various international norms, ranked between fifteenth and twentieth among industrialized nations. Less than half of our urban population graduates from high school, and many of those high school graduates require remedial English or mathematics in order to do college-level work.

Part of the explanation is that women entering the workforce after World War II found employment opportunity in K-12 education in an otherwise inhospitable workplace. …