Failing Grades: Waning Education Standards Threaten U.S. Competitiveness

By Gropman, Alan L. | National Defense, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Failing Grades: Waning Education Standards Threaten U.S. Competitiveness


Gropman, Alan L., National Defense


High-quality education is absolutely critical to national security, and the United States must soon address a number of challenges in its educational system if it wants to maintain a competitive edge in the global economy and in key technologies.

Of concern is that U.S. student scores are lagging behind other nations in critical areas such as math, science and reading, concluded a study by the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

A group of U.S. and foreign military officers and civilians completed the study last year after visiting dozens of educational organizations in the United States and abroad.

The study highlighted the dichotomy between the way educational achievement is measured in the United States versus international standards.

In the United States, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires states to develop challenging, coherent, and rigorous academic standards in reading and math, and then demonstrate mastery of those standards. The law required a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom by the end of 2006, but this requirement was not met and is being addressed in the reauthorization debate.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the "Nation's Report Card," measures the proficiency of fourth, eighth, and 12th grade students in mathematics, science and reading. During the period 1990-2005, NAEP test results showed positive performance trends.

In contrast to the national standards measured by NAEP, a comparison of U.S. scores against international standards is not as positive.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test was developed by education professionals from many countries. In 2003, students from 46 countries took the test. U.S. scores lagged behind those of other nations. Another international education assessment tool, the Program for International Student Assessment, tests 15 year olds from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries on math, science, and reading literacy. In the latest test in 2003, U.S. students scored below the international average and did significantly worse than students from 20 of the 30 participating countries.

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Some experts believe the United States is losing its competitive and comparative advantage because of globalization and the associated gains achieved by other nations, the ICAF study pointed out.

In this context, competitiveness applies to both hard and soft power aspects of national security. With respect to hard power, scholars have said that a decline in the quality of math and science education in the United States is partly responsible for the loss of economic and technological advantage. A key challenge in this area is the lack of degreed math and science teachers in U.S. secondary schools. In 2004, more than 31 percent of high school students were taught math by a teacher without a major, minor, or certification in that area. The numbers are even worse in the sciences--45 percent with degrees in biology, 61 percent in chemistry, and 67 percent in physics, the study said.

The soft power knowledge gap is evidenced in the low international ranking of U.S. students in history and geography. The U.S. education system also lacks adequate capacity to offer courses in strategic languages and where language courses are offered, they are rarely mandatory.

As a result of these trends and the international threats to economic and technical superiority, the United States should consider the need for greater federal involvement in education, said the ICAF study. This involvement can be accomplished by leveraging federal budget authority and by encouraging appropriate state and local actions.

To address the inconsistency in state academic achievement standards, the reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act should include funding for the development and implementation of mandatory national assessment tests and associated minimum performance standards for all U. …

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Failing Grades: Waning Education Standards Threaten U.S. Competitiveness
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