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Industry Study 

Waning Education Standards Threaten U.S. Competitiveness 


  By Alan L. Gropman 

High-quality education is absolutely critical to national security, and the United States must soon address a number of challenges in its educational system if it wants to maintain a competitive edge in the global economy and in key technologies.

Of concern is that U.S. student scores are lagging behind other nations in critical areas such as math, science and reading, concluded a study by the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

A group of U.S. and foreign military officers and civilians completed the study last year after visiting dozens of educational organizations in the United States and abroad.

The study highlighted the dichotomy between the way educational achievement is measured in the United States versus international standards.

In the United States, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires states to develop challenging, coherent, and rigorous academic standards in reading and math, and then demonstrate mastery of those standards. The law required a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom by the end of 2006, but this requirement was not met and is being addressed in the reauthorization debate.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” measures the proficiency of fourth, eighth, and 12th grade students in mathematics, science and reading. During the period 1990-2005, NAEP test results showed positive performance trends.

In contrast to the national standards measured by NAEP, a comparison of U.S. scores against international standards is not as positive.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test was developed by education professionals from many countries. In 2003, students from 46 countries took the test. U.S. scores lagged behind those of other nations. Another international education assessment tool, the Program for International Student Assessment, tests 15 year olds from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries on math, science, and reading literacy. In the latest test in 2003, U.S. students scored below the international average and did significantly worse than students from 20 of the 30 participating countries.

Some experts believe the United States is losing its competitive and comparative advantage because of globalization and the associated gains achieved by other nations, the ICAF study pointed out.

In this context, competitiveness applies to both hard and soft power aspects of national security. With respect to hard power, scholars have said that a decline in the quality of math and science education in the United States is partly responsible for the loss of economic and technological advantage. A key challenge in this area is the lack of degreed math and science teachers in U.S. secondary schools. In 2004, more than 31 percent of high school students were taught math by a teacher without a major, minor, or certification in that area. The numbers are even worse in the sciences — 45 percent with degrees in biology, 61 percent in chemistry, and 67 percent in physics, the study said.

The soft power knowledge gap is evidenced in the low international ranking of U.S. students in history and geography. The U.S. education system also lacks adequate capacity to offer courses in strategic languages and where language courses are offered, they are rarely mandatory.

As a result of these trends and the international threats to economic and technical superiority, the United States should consider the need for greater federal involvement in education, said the ICAF study. This involvement can be accomplished by leveraging federal budget authority and by encouraging appropriate state and local actions.

To address the inconsistency in state academic achievement standards, the reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act should include funding for the development and implementation of mandatory national assessment tests and associated minimum performance standards for all U.S. public school students.

In addition, the legislation should incorporate a national board certification that requires all public school teachers to meet minimum standards.

Congress should pass the American Competitiveness Initiative as part of the reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act. The ACI should improve math and science education essential for the continued global competitiveness of the United States.

The reauthorized NCLB Act should require secondary school teachers to have degrees in math and science in order to instruct these classes. With this requirement, the federal government must provide the resources and time necessary to facilitate appropriate retraining and certification.

In the area of international and foreign language education, the United States needs a comprehensive strategy. There are more than 30 international education programs administered by four federal agencies, and these efforts are not well coordinated, the ICAF study said.

The government also should boost funding and accelerate the implementation of the current National Security Language Initiative.

Governments at all levels should consider tax relief and exemptions to aid teacher recruiting and retention. Other potential tools at the state and local levels include compensation incentives such as signing bonuses, tuition reimbursement, loan forgiveness, insurance, day care and housing assistance. In addition, merit pay systems which reward certification, gains in student performance, and teaching in difficult to staff subject areas (math, science, language, and special education) are also effective incentives to increase retention.

Teachers do not leave college with all the skills necessary to excel in the classroom. Effective teaching demands keeping pace with new technology and techniques. Likewise, teaching requires sophisticated leadership skills both inside and outside the classroom. Therefore, local districts should create career development positions to help manage teacher continuing education, professional development and career progression. Effective education professional development programs must include leadership training at all levels.

Research shows that quality teaching is one of the most significant factors in improving student performance, and more importantly, closing the gap between the lowest and the highest performing students.

Teacher quality has been extensively debated, is difficult to define beyond credentialing criteria and even harder to measure. There is no certification program today that is accepted by all states. Concerns over teacher shortages are growing, especially in the math and science fields. While experts disagree about the nature and extent of the problem, recruitment and retention of the right quality and quantity of teachers is critical. This urgency is compounded by increasing student enrollments, class size reduction initiatives, declining college enrollments in teaching programs, the aging of the current teacher workforce, continuing budgetary pressures, and the prevalence of alternate teacher certification to meet the growing demand.

The United States spends more money per secondary student than most other nations, yet the nation continues to demonstrate disappointing performance on international standardized tests. On a per-pupil basis and adjusted for inflation, public school funding has increased 24 percent from 1991 through 2002. State and local governments provide approximately 91 percent of the funding with the federal government contributing the remaining 9 percent. Local governments are under significant fiscal pressure since they provide more than 44 percent of the overall funding, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the area off higher education, funding and associated student costs are also of concern. The largest portion of revenues for the average four-year public college or university comes from state appropriations at nearly 36 percent. Sales, including educational activities, auxiliary enterprises, and hospitals run by the universities, provide revenue of approximately 22 percent. The federal government provides 11 percent of direct support; tuition accounts for 18 percent. This federal support consists of grants and contracts. However, these figures are understated since they do not account for federally subsidized student tuition.

Alan L. Gropman is a distinguished professor of national security policy at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University. This article has been derived from an ICAF student/faculty report, which is published on the National Defense Magazine website. The views expressed in this article are those of the author or the industry study group and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A PDF of the complete Industrial College of the Armed Forces study on the education industry — from which this article was derived — can be found by clicking here.

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Reader Comments

Re: Waning Education Standards Threaten U.S. Competitiveness

I certainly agree with much of what is proposed in the article. However, is it not true that in the USA, we attempt to educate and test virtually our entire student population while many other countries do not? From what I have read, many of the countries to which we are compared do a combination of tracking students either vocationally or academically and test for comparative purposes what amounts to only their best and brightest. Some circles might suggest that is only an "urban myth" of sorts but from what I have read, it seems to be true. If so, then aren't we making unfair comparisons? In either case, it doesn't seem realistic to suggest that corporations are shipping American jobs overseas because of a poor educational system here. Rather, it seems to me they are doing so because of wage and benefit differences. Simply put, our wages here far exceed those of most of the world and corporate America is watching the bottom line. If that is true then statistical data may indicate otherwise but it would seem that no matter what educational changes we make, jobs will still be lost overseas. Should education be made the "whipping boy" for this job loss?

John on 09/16/2009 at 13:21

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