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Education Is Key to Winning the Future

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The future belongs to those who best educate their young people. And right now, America has fallen behind. We know that education is key to winning the future and that, in order to compete, we need to challenge ourselves to improve educational outcomes. The countries that best educate their children will be the ones that win in the global marketplace.

This week, hundreds of educators, policy makers, business and community leaders are gathering in Washington, D.C. to discuss this challenge and the way forward. The three-day Building a Grad Nation Summit aims to inspire a national movement to reach the goal of a 90 percent national graduation rate by 2020. With this goal comes the imperative to not just get our students across the stage at graduation, but to ensure those graduates are prepared for future education and 21st century careers.

The single most important factor in supporting that type of student success is the teacher in their classroom. That's why the president's Budget proposes an investment of $100 million to prepare science and math, engineering and technology (STEM) teachers and devotes $80 million to expand promising and effective models of teacher preparation, which will help train 10,000 more effective STEM teachers per year. Additionally, the plan invests $20 million in research that will improve our understanding of how to best recruit and prepare new teachers and retrain current teachers.

Recent results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that too few of our students demonstrate real proficiency in science -- a subject vital to sparking innovation and ensuring our future competitiveness. The OECD Program for International Student Assessment also found America's educational performance is lagging. While 10 percent of American students perform at the highest levels in reading, twice as many in Shanghai do. And although American students have improved, so have students in other countries -- leaving us ranked 17th in science and 25th in math, far behind countries like China and Korea.

There's a clear link between education and prosperity. The White House Council of Economic Advisors found education was responsible for up to one-third of the productivity growth in the United States from the 1950s to the 1990s. And a McKinsey & Company study concluded that raising U.S. educational achievement levels to those of better-performing nations like Finland and Korea would have lifted our 2008 GDP by 9 to 16 percent.

Looking forward, over the next ten years half of all new jobs will require postsecondary education, and half of today's thirty fastest growing job opportunities require at least a 4-year college degree. Make no mistake, those jobs will be filled -- the question is whether they will be in the United States or elsewhere.

These warning signs all point to the same conclusion: Our prosperity, America's standing in the world and our ability to grow our economy all rise or fall on the quality of education we provide. We simply can't afford to remain in the middle of the pack. So we must be bold, and we must do what's necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.

Education reform is an area where all parties can work together. President Obama, Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress and state houses across the country can make high school graduation and college and career-readiness a top priority. The Obama Administration has already supported state-led efforts, including the Race to the Top competition, to bring together teachers' unions, state school chiefs, the business community, and political and community leaders to spur reform.

But government can't shoulder this challenge alone. That's why over 100 companies, including AT&T, have answered the president's call to action to strengthen STEM education. Through public-private partnerships such as Change the Equation, a new non-profit established by the business community, we can invest in what works and scale up successful STEM programs across the country. AT&T has made the reduction of dropout rates a major focus for its philanthropic efforts through its $100 million AT&T Aspire program -- as have other businesses who recognize that quality education is critical for economic growth.

America can reverse the course to out-educate the world and win the future. We need to confront the challenges and build on the strengths of our education system. Key to that effort will be turning around low-performing schools; building accountability while supporting teachers and giving them the flexibility to spark creativity; placing greater emphasis on critical thinking and collaborative problem solving -- critical skills for tomorrow's workforce; and most important, we must direct resources where they make the most difference and tie them to needed reforms.

The educational successes seen in other countries are achievable here. Schools and communities have demonstrated the importance of a standard of excellence for teachers and students, the value of a more rigorous and engaging curriculum, and the importance of making education a data-driven enterprise to measure progress and mobilize entire communities.

We're making progress, but there's more we need to do. In his State of the Union, President Obama called this is our generation's "Sputnik moment." He couldn't be more right. After our original Sputnik moment more than 50 years ago, bold goals were set, resources were committed and a vital partnership with the private sector was forged. Every level of society was engaged, and public opinion stayed focused and held politicians accountable. The question now is: What will we make of our new Sputnik moment in education? Will we mobilize our nation to make a quality education a priority?

The answer is -- we must. We can't let other nations "out-educate" us today and "out-compete" us tomorrow. Working together, we can transform our schools and once again lead the world in education.

Melody Barnes is President Obama's Domestic Policy Adviser and the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, which coordinates the domestic policy-making process in the White House. Randall Stephenson is Chairman and CEO of AT&T Inc. Under his leadership, AT&T announced AT&T Aspire, a $100 million philanthropic program to help strengthen student success and workforce readiness.