It’s time for the candidates to offer a strong education strategy

September 13, 2012

In the late 1960s, a Stanford University psychologist began conducting his now famous “marshmallow test” to understand “delayed gratification” – the ability to wait.

He would place a 4-year-old alone in a room with a single delicious marshmallow, promising to give him two marshmallows after a short wait. Some children succumbed to temptation, while others held out for the bigger reward. The children who could control their impulses went on to become better, higher-achieving students.

Why do we bring up this iconic experiment now, in the midst of the 2012 election season?

We believe that helping American children get access to a great education is a two-marshmallow political test. In contrast to relatively quick fixes like even more quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve or temporary deficit spending fiscal policies, addressing the challenges facing U.S. schools and students cannot be achieved over the course of a quarter (or even an election cycle). But underperforming labor markets and the alarmingly high 8.1 percent unemployment rate make the goal of improving our public schools even more obviously critical to America’s future. Making smart fixes to the public education system now, as outlined in our recent Council on Foreign Relations report, will pay off later.

Consider the context: America’s gross domestic product today is at its highest level ever – but we are accomplishing this level of output with about 4.6 million fewer workers than at the top of our last economic expansion. Today, the unemployment rate of people with a college degree or higher is 4.1 percent, compared with 12.7 percent for people with less than a high school degree. Demand at home and globally for low-skilled workers is falling, and the only way to address this long-term trend is through education.

The discussion of education is all the more important today because the political strategy of the moment seems to be one of benign neglect – a perilous pattern. We know from experience that when the public, press and politicians ignore mounting problems, already struggling schools and students fall further behind and our country further damages its prospects. In short, when education reform is not a major part of the discussion, the powerful private parties that control the system – especially the bureaucrats and unions – are able to have their way, thus protecting a status quo that isn’t adequately serving our kids.

For example, America is now five years late in updating No Child Left Behind, the signature national education law governing K-12 public schools. While both of us agree that the law needs significant changes, the one thing it doesn’t need is to be ignored.

To be sure, education has received some attention on the campaign trail and at the conventions – notably from Condoleezza Rice, who served with us on this year’s CFR task force on education reform and national security, as well as Jeb Bush, Rahm Emanuel, Julian Castro and Cory Booker.

But these words fall far short of what’s required. It’s time for the politicians seeking our nation’s highest office to reject the pattern of benign neglect that empowers the status quo crowd and thus leads to backsliding; to publicly and forcefully commit to education as a top priority; and to lay out a specific education strategy for voters to consider in the November election.

Voters understandably prioritize creating jobs: In a recent Gallup poll, 92 percent cited job creation as very or extremely important. But education is close behind. In the same poll, 83 percent called education very or extremely important.

That said, voters’ opinions are not why the candidates should focus on education reform.

We believe the candidates should prioritize education for three primary reasons:

1. Education historically provided Americans with the skills and knowledge they needed to make their own way – to rise above their birth and determine their own life course. This is sadly no longer true. Today, parents’ level of education, Zip Code and race often determine a child’s academic and life outcomes. This unfortunate change puts the American dream, and our national culture, at risk.

2. Even students who have the “right” credentials at birth – students in well-off suburban districts, for example – are increasingly not competitive with global peers. U.S. students rank 14th in reading, 25th in math, and 17th in science compared with students in other industrialized countries (including Korea, Canada, Germany and Poland) on the Program for International Student Assessment. Top students in the United States would not be considered top students elsewhere in the world, especially in mathematics. Only 6 percent of U.S. students are advanced in math, compared with at least 20 percent in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Finland. Imagine what happens when these students who can’t perform at the very top on international exams are one day running top U.S. companies or other vital American institutions. Will they have the ability to lead?

3. Educational failure isn’t simply about individual failure; it is about our national well-being. Last spring, the bipartisan group of 30 that served with us on the CFR task force found that the state of our public schools is threatening the United States’ national security, in terms of economic competitiveness, physical safety and diplomatic strength. These are serious threats to our nation’s short- and long-term viability. We are similarly convinced that creating an educational “underclass” threatens to divide Americans from one another, undermining our national cohesion and strength.

For politicians, it must seem attractive to concentrate on the short-term demands of an electorate frustrated with a long economic recovery. But as the ability to cultivate our people’s creativity, productivity and ability to innovate becomes increasingly important, education is becoming increasingly fundamental.

This isn’t a time for quick-fix rhetoric. And it’s certainly not a time for political retreat from accountability, investment, choice, and more – not when we know that failing to choose an effective K-12 education strategy is the equivalent of choosing a diminished future for our country.

It’s time to end the excuse-making, the foot-dragging and the oppositional politics. We need our president to reframe the conversation and help our country introduce a new era of educational transformation and success. Of course, no president can fix education alone, without help from educators and leaders across the country. But progress in the last decade – though not sufficient – shows that change is possible, and we are confident that, if focused, our leaders can earn their two marshmallows.

America’s future depends on today’s leadership.

Joel I. Klein is a former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and served as Assistant Attorney General under Bill Clinton. Margaret Spellings is a former Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush.  They are members of the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Education and National Security.


One comment

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Education doesn’t need to be “reformed”! It needs to be supported. There will always be bad teachers, some good teachers, and mostly average teachers. just like any other profession. The performance rating of teachers and so called other reforms are nothing more than the right-wing attacks on labor unions.
The very powerful and rich right wing would like everyone to believe the problems in society reside everywhere but with them and there relentless pursuit of more power.

Schools are starved for funds leading to larger class sizes, evermore dilapidated school buildings, decreased salaries and benefits for teachers.

I left the profession many years ago, but whenever I considered returning, I saw nothing but a road paved with frustration. I know many others left and never returned for the same reason. Let’s stop blaming the schools and the teachers for the malaise this country is in.
Until the issues of wealth inequality and income inequality
are addressed, nothing else will make any difference.

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