08/10/2012 04:41 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2012

The Olympic Games and Florida Education

Over the past week, I've thrown my desire to get a good night's rest out the window as the Olympic Games have kept me riveted to the "tele" until midnight each night. As a former diver, you can bet I've been watching all events that splash. And having witnessed both history and heartache, I cannot help but think about -- and appreciate -- how the Games bring out the competitive and patriotic spirit in all of us.

But as someone with a passion for education policy, I also wish our country showed a little more enthusiasm when it came to our academic standing in the world. While America has much to be proud of when it comes to our athletic prowess and accomplishments, our students are falling short on the international stage by missing key international benchmarks.

For example, our country's dismal performance internationally in math is quite alarming. The U.S. currently ranks 25th out of 34 developed nations on international assessments. Our teenagers also failed to excel in science and reading, ranking 17th and 14th respectively in those subjects.

But it's not just how far behind we are in the rankings that should worry us. The Council on Foreign Relations recently issued a report warning that America's national security was at risk due to the weakness of our education system -- we simply aren't producing the highly-skilled and well-educated graduates our country needs to maintain our global leadership. The council cited low test scores, high dropout rates, and large gaps in achievement levels between poor and minority kids, compared to their wealthier white counterparts.

I -- for one -- believe that we can and must do better than this.

So, how do we regain our dominance?

We should start by tapping into that same competitive spirit that radiates from Americans during the Olympics. Let's set high expectations for all students in our most critical academic subjects. We are not doing our youth any favors by accepting mediocrity.

We must also take a hard look at policies that hold our kids back. Parental involvement is vital to increasing student achievement, so let's pass measures to empower parents and help families get more involved -- and have a real say -- in their children's education.

Last session, the Florida Legislature came so close to passing a parent-empowerment law that would allow moms and dads of kids in failing schools to take steps to turn those schools around so they work much better for children. Options already exist for turning around these low-performing schools. I believe, simply, parents should have a say in the discussion about which option is best. In the end, political maneuvering blocked this much-needed reform. Predominantly, support for the policy was there, so I hope it is reconsidered this session.

No parent should ever feel that their son or daughter is trapped in a failing school, so we also must create and offer additional educational options for families. These can include, for example, the expansion of high-quality public charter schools and the scholarship program for low-income kids stuck in underperforming schools.

Sadly, many parents around the state of Florida are powerless when trying to provide their children with quality education options. Can you imagine if -- as a parent -- you had no control over what soccer league your daughter played in, or which tennis instructor best fit your son's talent and aspiration?

We must work hard to push for these policies that foster parental engagement in education in a deep and meaningful way. Without a widespread, concerted movement that engages broad-based support, we will be unable to make the bold changes our schools need to succeed.

As a mother of two wonderful girls, I know parents instinctively put the interests of their children above the interests of systems or bureaucracies. It is also as a mother, in charge of a family budget, that I know it's time these systems and bureaucracies have more fiscal transparency; it is imperative that the way financial resources are spent have a direct impact on student achievement. The more power, information, and transparency parents have related to their child's education, the more likely our schools will construct education systems that put our students first.

While our current academic rankings might be troubling, as an American I cannot help but spot opportunity and maintain my optimistic perspective. We can do this, and we will do this. We simply cannot wait any longer.

We need your help, so get involved today. Together, we can provide our kids with the gold-medal education they deserve.

And nothing is more patriotic than that.