U.S. No Longer Leader of the Free World

06/28/2011 12:54 pm ET | Updated Aug 28, 2011
  • John H. Jackson President and CEO, The Schott Foundation for Public Education

After spending trillions on wars to protect our shores and to bring democracy to faraway lands, the nation's number-one threat and weapon of mass destruction is decreasing opportunities for its citizens. In short, the United States is imploding from within.

America was once thought of as the leader of the free world. Now, huge wealth disparities, along with inequitable distribution of educational resources and poor school discipline and criminal justice policies, have created the perfect cocktail to make the United States the world leader in incarceration rates. This is not the road map to lead the free world.

Over the next 30 years, U.S. cities and states probably will be defined by what happens with the bottom two-thirds of citizens rather than the top one-third. In the global networked world of the 21st Century, the top third will be highly mobile, and the nationwide competition for talent and high wages will become global.

But think about what we are up against: As they increase in percentage of the population, Blacks and Hispanics have a high school graduation rate that is 21 points behind that of Whites, or just 57 percent, according to a recent Education Week report. Only one-third of Americans have any college or postsecondary credentials, and the bottom two-thirds of Americans are more likely to drop out of schools and to be incarcerated. The bottom two-thirds of Americans control less than 15 percent of the nation's wealth.

Having a high-quality education system for all students regardless of the ZIP codes in which they live is not only the democratic measure for leadership, it is increasingly the major determinant of a nation's economic fate.

Fortunately, we can look at other industrialized countries for models for turning things around in a relatively short time. Recently, along with other education funders, I spent time in Ontario, Canada, whose education system has made remarkable gains over a seven- to 10-year period.

Ontario and other education systems are featured in a new report from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) on how high-flying nations have turned around their schools. "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants" reviews what policies might look like in United States if we were to incorporate the lessons learned in [Ontario,] Canada, [Shanghai,] China, Finland, Japan, and Singapore.

Here are just three of the lessons we can draw from as we prepare for an uncertain future:

  1. These nations started their turnarounds by investing in and reaffirming their public education systems as lifelines for progress. Similarly, our public education system will determine the strength of the U.S. economy and democracy: 90 percent of American children attend public schools today, and that will probably continue to be the case. This is the pool from which we must find 21 million post-secondary graduates above our current rate to remain globally competitive in 2020. Public education is the only system capable of affecting the massive number of students needed to right our country's trajectory.
  2. They focused on closing the opportunity gap. For starters, the NCEE report notes that raising educational achievement requires a commitment to all students. This was a radical shift for some countries that historically were much better at ensuring that populations of elite students received the best education but allocated fewer resources and provided less opportunity for the less privileged.

  3. This sounds all too familiar. While President Barack Obama's national goal is to have the United States become a global leader in postsecondary attainment by 2020, receiving a quality education in this country remains influenced more by ZIP code than by students' abilities.

    We cannot raise student performance and close the achievement gap without first addressing America's unconscionable and growing opportunity gap. The pertinent NCEE report data are very compelling. When the top industrial nations shifted their focus to commit to improving educational opportunity for all, interesting things happened. Ineffective strategies were abandoned, such as giving only some students intellectually demanding curricula, recruiting only a few teachers who are themselves highly educated, and directing funding toward the easiest-to-educate and denying it to those hardest to educate.

  4. They focused on improving the overall quality of their educational systems and achievement. As the United States moves closer to common core curricula, we must guarantee students' access to high-quality early education, ensure that they are on grade level in reading by the end of third grade, and increase capacity to recruit and retain highly effective teachers. We must integrate extended-day learning and dual enrollment opportunities into school systems to provide students the opportunity to excel. We can avoid costly detours and find our way by building on the lessons from other countries that have successfully applied the research on proven education investments.

For more than a decade, the United States has been identifying and protecting itself from external threats to its democracy. However, it is clear that the biggest threat we face is from within. The American battle of the 21st Century involves addressing our internal equity challenges. We can continue to lock up our future and limit the potential of our education system and economy for most Americans. Or we can reaffirm the role of public education in our nation's prosperity. It's our choice.