Education: Silence on the campaign trail

In April 1983, a blue ribbon panel created by the Reagan administration issued a report that dramatically changed the public dialogue over our nation's education system. "A Nation at Risk" contained dire warnings about the state of our schools.

"A Nation at Risk" reported that the educational foundations of our society were being eroded by a "rising tide of mediocrity." Education standards were being diluted. Test scores were sinking. Students were spending less time on core subjects like math and reading. As a result, American students were falling behind their peers in other countries.

Today, things are worse. While the United States once had the best high school graduation rate in the world, we now have slipped to 19th out of 26 industrialized countries. More than one-third of American college students spend time in remedial courses. Even our nation's top math students now rank 25th out of 30 developed countries. This substandard achievement has serious consequences for America's economic growth and our students' ability to compete for jobs in a global marketplace.

How can we get our schools back on track?

We can begin by demanding more from our leaders. Education has been a second-tier issue in the current presidential campaigns, but no issue is more important to our nation's long-term well being. So, whether our next president is John McCain, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, we need to begin hearing from each of them right now about their plans to improve our schools. To this point, we've heard little.

This doesn't require a federal takeover of schools, but it does require a president who will lay out a vision, set strong goals, and then begin holding people accountable. Fortunately, we don't need to look hard for solutions. "A Nation at Risk" already provided us with the playbook, and the solutions it first recommended 25 years ago are just as relevant today.

First, we need better standards. As any parent knows, young people will rise -- or sink -- to meet the level of expectations that are set for them. When it comes to our nation's academic standards, we are demanding far too little. The math curriculum for eighth graders is two years behind the math curriculum being taught to eighth grade students in other countries. Our students are as bright as their foreign counterparts, but we are asking them to learn less. We set higher standards for football players to perform on the fields than we do for students in the classroom.

Second, we need to attract and retain the best teachers possible. Unfortunately, decades of consistently low pay and poor working conditions have made the majority of our top college students think twice about entering the teaching profession. This takes its toll, as millions of American high school students are now being taught academic courses by teachers who have no degree in the subject they are teaching. If we want to attract the best teachers, then we need to begin by giving teachers the pay, flexibility, and performance incentives they would receive in nearly every other profession.

Finally, we need to examine the school schedule and find ways to ensure students spend more time learning. The average American school day and school year are shorter than those in most industrialized countries. By the time they graduate high school, students in other countries have obtained the equivalent of an extra year's worth of education over American students, solely as a result of the extra time they spent in the classroom. If we want our kids to learn more, then we simply have to give them more time to learn.

"A Nation at Risk" did a tremendous job in laying out the problems that plague our education system and what we must do to address them. The fact we're still debating the merits of education reform more than 25 years later indicates that our biggest problem isn't failure -- it's complacency. If we continue to remain idle as our schools crumble, then our children will inherit a nation with fewer economic opportunities.

President Kennedy gave us the vision and policies to get to the moon. President Reagan gave us the vision and policies to end the Cold War. We need our next president to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to deliver the vision and policies necessary to restore our education system and make it the best in the world. The game plan already exists. Which one of the presidential candidates or which of our political parties will have the courage to implement it?

J.C. Watts, who writes twice monthly for the Review-Journal, is chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group, and a former member of Congress from Oklahoma. The J.C. Watts Companies advises Strong American Schools, a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and a nonpartisan campaign promoting sound education policies for all Americans.