As a former U.S. Commerce Department Foreign Service officer, as well as someone who worked extensively in international trade and economic policy earlier in my career, I was especially interested to read the Council on Foreign Relations new report, “U.S. Education Reform and National Security.” The council’s task force was chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and former New York City schools chief Joel Klein. For anyone who spends time thinking about international competitiveness and security issues, the important link to a successful education system is readily apparent. But for many, education remains a domestic issue separate from foreign activities.
For us education policy wonks, most of the data is not new or surprising. An exception for me: the fact that now 75 percent of U. S. citizens between 17-24 are not qualified for military service because they are physically unfit, have criminal records or have inadequate levels of education. Among recent high school graduates who are eligible to apply, 30 percent score too low on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to be recruited. The achievement gap is alive and well in the military also: African American applicants are twice as likely to test ineligible as white applicants.
The report quotes from a U.S. military report that found in a staff of 250 at an intelligence headquarters in Iraq, “only 4-5 personnel were capable analysts with an aptitude to put pieces together to form a conclusion.” This included both officers and enlisted personnel. Suddenly, it becomes more plausible to understand how a military unit in Afghanistan thought burning Korans would be a good way to dispose of them! Unfortunately, data raising questions about the critical thinking and educational background of some in the officer corps correlates with the huge numbers of seemingly strong high school graduates that require remediation in college.
Rather than a long litany of recommendations, the report makes only three. And one of them is to restructure education to provide students with good choices. The task force wants parents to have a wider range of options and wants to see a system that encourages and supports innovation.
It notes that competition has benefited virtually every other aspect of American life, not least of which has been the world’s leading higher education system in the U.S. I was a bit surprised the report did not note how much more educational choice is available to families elsewhere in most of the industrialized world.
But then it advocates that choice be extended to private K-12 alternatives, pointing out that currently those with financial means opt out while poor children are trapped. The task force terms this the worst form of inequality. The education system needs to respond to local demand, referring to some districts where five times as many families apply for schools of choice than there are seats available.
Nevertheless, the status quo folks, led by Linda Darling-Hammond and Randi Weingarten, seized the opportunity to file a dissenting view attacking choice as an important part of the solution in education. They refer to studies that are far less than gold standard. When you look at the best studies, as nine scholars did recently in an Education Week op-ed, the worst any of them can conclude is that choice does no harm.
Instead we are treated to the tired, old arguments about choice draining resources from public schools. It equates children to cattle that are owned and belong in some school district’s corral rather than belonging to families who ought to be able to select a school that best meets the families’ needs and value. I recognize that schools ought to be measured against academic quality standards, but parents’ satisfaction and expectations ought to be a significant part of that measurement.
Millions of American children need better educations now. Yet even in the face of national security warnings and evidence that the U.S. K-12 system is falling behind world achievement levels for both the weakest and strongest of its students, we are constantly told we must wait. We must repair the traditional public education system that continues to deteriorate despite vastly expanded funding in real dollars over recent decades.
When are we finally done waiting?