THE BLOG

The Long-Range Threat Is Poor Education, Not Nukes

03/24/2015 01:30 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

The U.S. fails to educate many of its best and brightest. This is a threat to U.S. security. A Times-Tribune editorial indicates part of the problem:

Nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, students in the poorest school districts receive 15.6 percent less state and local funding than students in the wealthiest districts.

The rest of the industrialized world educates most children well and for free. The U.S. is losing its ability to compete in the world economy.

Last month an Economist article pointed out that "[t]alk of a renaissance in American manufacturing is overblown," explaining:

The 2015 Economic Report of the President, released on February 19th, suggests reforming the tax system, which hits manufacturing firms hard. [Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution] hopes the federal government will double its investment in basic research and development, as Barack Obama has promised. And schools and colleges need to improve. America ranks a miserable 13th in the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, in the proportion of the population graduating in science, maths and engineering. Without big improvements, manufacturing will soon flounder again.

The Economist's view is that the U.S. cannot remain competitive in product development and manufacturing with its current education base. This U.S.'s competitive weakness was seen coming from far away and long ago. On Aug. 21, 1994, The New York Times published an article by Catherine S. Manegold titled "Aug. 14-20: Bleak Education Report; Decades After Sputnik Science Education Still Lags." She rightly bemoaned the failure of U.S. education to keep up with world standards:

Back in 1957, when Sputnik was launched, the fervor for meeting the Soviet challenge generated an explosion of science training and research. But a decade after the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" alerted America to broad failures in education, the news is not much better.

Now, over a generation later, little has changed. The United States ranks solidly around 17 when the top 50 developed nations are compared. We are not an educational superpower, and since both Eisenhower and Reagan we've recognized the national security implications. Without a strong education base, a global power cannot maintain its leadership position. The United States' massive investments in education following World War II and during the Cold War space race allowed the nation to successfully compete on existing resources. This trend is ending.

In a summary of a March 2012 report by its Independent Task Force, "U.S. Education Reform and National Security," the Council on Foreign Relations writes:

"Educational failure puts the United States' future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk," warns the Task Force, chaired by Joel I. Klein, former head of New York City public schools, and Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state. The country "will not be able to keep pace -- much less lead -- globally unless it moves to fix the problems it has allowed to fester for too long," argues the Task Force.

The U.S. is lying to itself. We all agree that U.S. education is a problem, but we cannot agree to face the challenge. Will and pragmatism are lacking. But a small two-year college in Scranton, Pennsylvania, demonstrates one path to success on its own.

Lackawanna College, with a majority of its students designated as being "at risk," is doing something earth-shaking. When students in that college's nationally recognized football program were discovered to maintain a cumulative grade point average of less than 2.0, the school took action. Three years later the same football program maintains a better-than-3.0 average.

The school did not take the course of least resistance. There were neither specially designed "football courses" nor "easy professors." The college gathered its resources and concentrated on improving student performance. Dr. Erica Barone-Pricci, Vice President for Academic Affairs, said:

One of the reasons this program works is because faculty *volunteer* for this challenge. Our faculty genuinely believe in the potential of these young men and share an ethical obligation to help them succeed. They recognize that dedicating resources to at-risk students, empowering students, and giving them proper tools is more than just a "project." It's a mission with very real and tangible benefits to our community.

The results speak for themselves. Intentionally designed and cohorted at-risk student groups are to follow. The college's faculty and staff are the keys. Students focus on both standards and learning. Groups work and study together to learn. This intensive focus and group concentration appear to energize both the student and faculty. This month in Selma, Alabama, President Obama said:

[W]e do expect equal opportunity, and if we really mean it, if we're willing to sacrifice for it, then we can make sure every child gets an education suitable to this new century, one that expands imaginations and lifts their sights and gives them skills.

Lackawanna College is doing just that; perhaps other secondary and college institutions should take notice.