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The "Single Most Important Issue" That's Never Discussed

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Take a look at these quotes from the presidential candidates in recent debates:

It's important to state that improving our schools, improving education, access to education for all Americans, should be America's foremost priority.

I have fought to make sure that schools are fair to all children, and I don't think there is a more important issue.

I think the biggest economic problem we face long term is our education, our K-12 education system.

I've been asked the question over the years, what's the single most important issue? I always say education because it is the answer to every other problem we confront as a people here.

It sounds like the candidates get it. At least, they say it's important. But words aren't enough for me anymore, and words aren't going to be enough for the frustrated teachers, employers, and parents who are coming to realize that their children might be part of the first American generation who won't grow up to have it better than they did.

Last week, I was interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered for a story called "Education: A Good Guy Issue That Finishes Last." During the piece, Robert Siegel said, "Ask voters how they rate education as an issue in the presidential election and they'll place it right up there among their top four concerns. A recent Pew Center poll shows that education outranked jobs, Social Security, even terrorism. So why don't we hear candidates duking it out over education?"

Why indeed? Sure, talking about schools makes a great sound bite, but I'd like to think that at least a few of these people running for president are clued in to why turning our K-12 education system around matters. It's high time for the candidates put their policies before the pandering and deliver some real answers on education.

Here are three issues that I'd like to see some "duking" about:

American Education Standards

All students, from Mississippi to Massachusetts, have a right to a quality education that will prepare them for life. However, by the end of 8th grade, what passes for the U.S. math curriculum is two years behind the math being studied by 8th graders in other countries. In a recent report, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) pegged America's low education standards as one of the biggest threats to the U.S. economy.

Nearly half of recent high school graduates who entered the workforce (46%) say they are not prepared for the jobs they hope to get in the future. Employers agree, estimating that nearly half of high school graduates (45%) are not prepared with skills to advance beyond entry level jobs.

There is even some troubling evidence that some states are lowering their testing requirements to make students look like they are learning more than they really are. We may be a nation of fifty states, but we're still a nation, and the presidential candidates should speak out on how to raise expectations in every state.

Effective Teachers in Every Classroom

Teachers have a bigger impact on students' learning than anything else in schools, but we are failing to attract the best and brightest to teach our students. Minority students lose out most from this failure - nationally, teachers in high-minority schools are about almost twice as likely to be inexperienced as teachers in low-minority schools and more than 70 percent of math teachers in America's high-minority middle schools lack even a college minor in math or a math-related field.

America's highest-achieving young adults are less likely to train to become teachers, less likely to take a teaching job, and less likely to stay in the classroom. The likelihood that a highly talented female in the top ten percent of high school graduates will go into teaching declined by nearly half from 1964 to 2000.

It's not enough to simply pay teachers more. We need to provide incentives for effective teachers to take on difficult assignments and fill critical shortages in subjects like math and science. We need to attract talented adults to the profession by offering teachers opportunities to earn advancement and better pay.

Some states like Colorado and Minnesota are already developing ways to do this. But I'm still waiting for a candidate to offer a realistic plan so that all of our nation's students - the black kid in Detroit, the poor kid in rural Alabama, and the middle class white kid in Connecticut - can be taught by an effective teacher.

More Time and Support for Learning

According to the Center for American Progress, "Many of the countries that outperform the United States on international comparisons of student performance keep their students in school longer. There is little doubt that the extra time students in other countries devote to education contributes to the differences in academic achievement."

However, there are solutions to be offered. For example, students in KIPP schools get about 60 percent more class time than their peers, and the results are impressive: In Washington, D.C., KIPP fifth graders improved so much in just one year that they rose from the bottom 15 percent to the top 25 percent of students in the nation.

If we are going to demand more from our students, it is our obligation to give them what they need to succeed, and it's the president's job to lay out strategies on how to do this across the nation.

Now the federal government cannot solve these problems alone--nor should it try to do so. But we need strong presidential leadership to galvanize action at the national, state, and local levels. Education is just as important as the war in Iraq, health care, and global warming, and it must be a top domestic priority of the next administration--no matter who wins the presidency.

Now is the time for leadership, not playing it safe. Whoever emerges from the field of candidates to become our presidential nominees must be worthy to go beyond the Reg Weavers and Phyllis Schlaflys of this country. No more duck and cover rhetoric - it's time to hear more detailed plans from the candidates about how they plan to address America's K-12 education crisis, and it's definitely time for them to live up to those plans.