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Jennifer Davis Headshot

It's Education, Stupid

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As the presidential campaign moves into its final two weeks and the candidates crisscross the country focusing mostly on the economy, I've been frustrated by how little attention education has received on the campaign trail. Often candidates for national office spend more time talking about issues of dollars and cents than they do about improving our education system because it seems that's where the voters are focusing their attention. We know, though, that there is a strong relationship between economic growth and a world-class education system. A recent Tom Friedman column drew this connection exceptionally well. Friedman zeroes in on the paramount importance of obtaining some form of a postsecondary education because, "technology and globalization are wiping out lower-skilled jobs faster, while steadily raising the skill level required for new jobs. More than ever now, lifelong learning is the key to getting into, and staying in, the middle class."

Recently, I've had several opportunities to speak with education leaders from some of the highest-performing countries around the globe. They are perplexed by our challenges in the areas of teacher quality and developing world-class academic standards. The majority of high-performing countries have teachers who join the profession from the elite universities and enjoy a level of prestige reserved for lawyers, doctors, and engineers in the United States.

These international education leaders wonder why it took America nearly 20 years to agree that high standards in math and language should be standard across states, districts and schools. They wonder why foreign languages are not commonly taught in our elementary schools. They find it hard to believe that one out of every five American children lives in poverty -- children for whom investments in high-quality education are even more important. Leaders from Beijing and South Korea actually worry that their students are spending too much time in school -- over 14 hours a day and more than 200 days a year in some cases! Meanwhile our students attend school, on average, 180 6.5 hour days -- a schedule created for an earlier era.

Yet, for all the concern that education has gotten short shrift during the campaign, I found it telling that at last Monday's debate, right in the middle of a debate focused on foreign policy, the issue of education kept coming up. In a question about America's role in the world, for example, President Obama noted that he will put in place an initiative to spur the hiring of 100,000 math and science teachers, while Governor Romney boasted that when he was governor of Massachusetts students ranked at the top of all the states. Both candidates implicitly and explicitly recognize that education is the key to international competitiveness and our national future.

And, within the education positions and records of both candidates, modernizing the school schedule to meet the needs of students today holds a significant place. Consider the Obama Administration's signature reform effort, its "Race to the Top" initiative (RTTT), which has prompted states to embrace significant system improvements. As we highlighted in our policy report, Learning Time in America, one of the central educational ideas within this $4.35 billion federal initiative is the call for and funding of expanded learning time in low performing schools. Meanwhile, Governor Romney often touts the effective practices of high-performing charter schools, most of which embrace a longer day and year.

As much as I would like to see education featured more prominently, I am pleased that both candidates believe that schools must improve and that more and better educational opportunities will be necessary to compete in the global economy. We also hold out hope that Americans will begin to see as a higher priority the necessity of strengthening our education system, if for no other reason but to keep alive the hope of their children achieving the American Dream.