Published Online: March 20, 2012
Includes correction(s): April 3, 2012

U.S. Education Woes Threaten National Security, Report Says

The United States must improve its education system or risk imperiling national security and the economy, according to a new report from a blue-ribbon panel convened by the Council on Foreign Relations.

“U.S. Education Reform and National Policy,” the product of the 30-member task force chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Joel I. Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, cites statistics demonstrating the failures of the school system and recommends more school-choice efforts, an annual nationwide audit of educational achievement, and national standards in subjects such as civics and foreign languages.

Four commission members, however, dissented from those recommendations, outlining their concerns in dissents appended to the report.

The report cites the small number of U.S. students studying science and technology at a college level and low scores overall on standardized tests, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, as indicators of an underdeveloped “human capacity.” The report also notes that less than a quarter of all students are eligible for the armed services, due to either obesity, criminal records, lack of high school diplomas, or inability to pass the armed forces entrance test.

“A world-class education system is vital to preserving not just the country’s physical security but also to reinforcing the broader components of American leadership, such as economic dynamism, an informed and active democracy, and a coterie of informed professionals willing and able to live and serve around the world,” wrote Richard N. Haass, the president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, in an introduction to the report.

At a press conference marking the publication of the report, Ms. Rice and Mr. Klein emphasized that public education plays a unique role in forging a national identity. “If we are not one nation, we cannot defend one nation."

Beyond English

The report’s call for more instruction in civics and in foreign languages is aimed at improving U.S. students’ competitiveness and meeting the nation’s need for foreign service workers skilled in languages like Russian and Chinese.

“It’s about time,” said Shuhan C. Wang, the deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, applauding the report’s focus on educational substance. Studying languages has “cognitive, social, and cultural benefits, and it improves...national security and national prosperity,” Ms. Wang said. She said that the nation’s lack of a national policy on language learning is rare among industrialized countries, where foreign language study often begins in elementary school. The report also calls for the Common Core State Standards Initiative to be expanded to include foreign languages, sciences, and the arts.

The report’s authors also recommend more choice in K-12 education through charter schools, school vouchers, and similar programs. At the conference, Ms. Rice described competitiveness as one of the nation’s strengths. “Higher education in the U.S. is the gold standard internationally...because of the competition and...the multiplicity of choices.”

The authors said these reforms “will cost money. We just have to make sure that money that’s spent is well spent.”

Several members of the task force agreed with some aspects of the report, such as its description of the importance of schools in American society and its support for professional development for teachers, but expressed concerns about some of its information and recommendations. “[The report] says a troubled public education system is a ‘very grave national security threat facing the country,’ but it offers only anecdotal evidence to support this unconvincing claim,” Steven M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, wrote in one dissent.

“[It] advocates privatization, competition, and market-based approaches that, while compelling, have not worked in a scalable and sustainable way either here or abroad,” wrote Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a dissent co-signed by Carole Artigiani, the founder of the nonprofit Global Kids, Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University, and Mr. Walt.

At the press event, Ms. Weingarten noted that while she agreed that “how we use education to ignite America is a really important notion,” some of the nations that outperform the U.S. use educational models that differ from those proposed in the report.

An Old Story?

This is not the first time education and national security have been linked, Kevin G. Welner, director of the Colorado University-Boulder’s National Education Policy Center, said in an email response to questions from Education Week. “In truth, there’s nothing new here. It happened after Sputnik in 1957. It happened in 1983 with A Nation at Risk. It seems to happen every time PISA results are released.”

Related Blog

David Berliner, a professor of education at Arizona State University, in Phoenix, agreed. “Many books were written about my generation, pointing out that we were idiots, that teachers were babying us, and that learning wasn’t taking place...Certainly the nation was imperiled then, just as Rice and Klein now say we are.” But, he said, that generation “turned the 20th century into the American century.”

Both Mr. Berliner and Mr. Welner were skeptical of the proposed solutions. “What we apparently have to do is to intensify all the things that we’ve been doing for the past couple of decades: More privatization, more testing and test-based accountability, more charter schools and vouchers, and more deprofessionalization of teaching,” Mr. Welner said. He described the research cited in the report as “cherry-picked.”

“We as a nation do have an equity crisis, and this crisis includes our schools. We should as a nation be alarmed that so many children are growing up in areas of concentrated poverty,” said Mr. Welner. “But I see little in this new report that takes seriously the causes or needed responses to the actual problems faced by our nation’s children. More testing, charters, and vouchers won’t help a bit.”

Vol. 31, Issue 26

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of commission members who signed a dissenting view.

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