04/01/2008 02:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's Happened to the Great American Century?

The twentieth century is often times referred to as the "Great American Century" -- the period of time when America was the world leader on a number of fronts. During this century, the world looked to America as the international problem solver and as the leader in the global economy. Americans too relished the fact that the twentieth century made the American dream possible -- national economic prosperity and a great sense of pride gave the family of four the availability to own the suburban house with a dog and a white picket fence.

America was also the global leader in education. We made it possible for every child to get a good quality education -- an education that, when complete, would get them a good paying job and the ability to provide for their family. Education policies during the 20th century brought democracy to education with programs like the G.I bill. We also responded to the outcry that challenged our leadership positions when the Soviets launched the space race with Sputnik -- we rallied to a common cause and invested in science, technology, math and engineering. In short, we knew collectively that educational achievement and intellectual development paved the groundwork for our economic success.

As the 20th Century came to a close, Americans started to become too comfortable with the fact that they were the global leader. It's almost as if we believed we were invincible. We've come to assume that the American dream was guaranteed no matter how hard or how little we worked.

However, as we lapsed into arrogance, the world grew hungry for the success that we as Americas became accustomed too. As The Washington Post , LA Times, NY Times and International Herald Tribune all point out: the emerging economies of the Asias are forecasted to exponentially grow in the nearing future and by some predications pass the United States economy by 2050. If we don't get our act together the next hundred years will not be as prosperous as the last hundred years.

Over the last 25 years, while countries like India, China and Korea have restructured and significantly improved their educational system, ours has stagnated. Just consider this -- America's 15-year-olds are significantly below average in math and science. Out of the 30 countries participating in the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment America's 15-year-olds ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. This failure directly links to the strength of our economic competitiveness. Our sons and daughters are not just competing for jobs with their classmates and their neighbors; they are also competing with the Japanese, Chinese, Indians and everyone else on the other side of the globe. According to a leading economist, this crisis in education is costing us at least a trillion dollars let alone causing America to lose ground as its workforce competes in the global marketplace.

There's been a lot of speculation and debate over why our schools aren't working, but a better question ought to be why aren't more Americans alarmed that our education system is declining? Maybe it's because they don't know or understand the problem. Or maybe it's because the politicians are afraid of the unions, interest groups and ideologues. Whatever it is, we'd better put our collective heads together and find a solution.

We need that same great purpose that propelled us past the Soviets in the '60s -- we need a call to enter "a new frontier." We need presidential leadership that will rally the country around the common goal of raising our standards and making us more competitive in the global economy.

And this is how we can start:

First, we need to implement higher standards for our students. America's low education standards prevent our students from reaching their fullest potential and imperil out nation's economic security. We need to benchmark our standards against the top countries in the world to ensure that America is on pace to compete in the global marketplace. Finally, we need assessments to guarantee that our student's are mastering the material they need to known in order to advance to the next grade level. From these standards we need to test to guarantee that are students are mastering the material they need to advance to the next grade level.

Second, we need effective teachers in every classroom. It should come as no surprise that America's schools will need to hire nearly 3 million new teachers over the next decade, and they must do so amidst a fierce battle for human capital in an ultra-competitive global society. We have both a challenge and an opportunity before us. We cannot continue to fail children because recruiting and retaining new teachers is too hard. We need to enable teachers to improve their skills, measure teachers' performance in the classroom, and pay them more if they produce superior results or take on challenging assignments.

Finally, we need to have student's spend more quality time in the classroom. Students in other nations are working harder, working longer, and learning more than our students. On average, students in nations participating in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study spent 193 days annually in school, compared with only 180 in the U.S. Over 12 years, this deficit translates into a gap of nearly one full school year. If we want to have a prayer of keeping our kids at the top of the global food chain, somethings got to give.

Marc Lampkin is the Executive Director of Strong American Schools, an unprecedented national public awareness and action campaign aimed at elevating education to the top of the nation's domestic priorities during the 2008 presidential election and beyond. Visit to find out more.