Politics & Policy

Rapidly Losing Our Edge

Lagging behind in education is hindering our economic competitiveness.

The competitive economic advantages the U.S. enjoyed in the last half of the 20th century are today disappearing rapidly. Other nations, led by China and India, are implementing reforms to rapidly train their workforces to compete with the U.S. As a result of our failure to reform our own education system to meet the needs of the 21st century, U.S. workers are increasingly losing access to high paying jobs.

Although conservatives are rightly suspect of federal involvement in education, without addressing this issue through national leadership we will continue to hinder our economic competitiveness with severe economic consequences for our nation’s workers.

A survey released earlier this year comparing the performance of American students to students in 29 other countries found that the performance of American students was “broadly unsatisfactory.” Out of 29 countries participating in a 2003 OECD assessment, America’s 15-year-olds ranked 24th in math; 24th in problem-solving; 18th in science; and 15th in reading.

Lest anyone believe these results were skewed by the performance of a small number of struggling students, the test scores of the United States’ top students was equally poor when compared to the top students of other nations. America’s top math students rank 23rd out of 29 countries when compared with top students elsewhere in the world.

Given the increasingly global, complex nature of economic competition this is potentially damning news for us down the road. According to the National Center on Education and the Economy, “American workers at every skill level are in direct competition with workers in every corner of the globe.” Two-thirds of new jobs being created in today’s economy require higher education or advanced training, but only about half of U.S. students who enroll in 4-year colleges after high school manage to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

To understand why the United States has fallen so far behind, we must first look at what other countries are doing differently, the most glaring example being academic standards. Simply put, our economic competitors demand more of their students than we do. By the end of 8th grade, the U.S. math curriculum is two years behind the math being studied by students in other countries.

Foreign students also get more time and support for learning. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, considered one of the standards in comparing student performances across countries, found that in only two of the 13 participating nations did students spend fewer days in schools than American students. Over the course of their academic career, students in those other 13 nations spent an average of 156 extra days in school compared to their American counterparts – the equivalent of nearly one full school year.

Successfully addressing these growing disparities will be a boon to American workers of today and tomorrow. If America could raise the skills of its students to just the middle of the pack of European nations over the next decade, our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would grow by an additional five percent over 30 years. That would mean an extra $1.5 trillion in 2037 alone. Over a 50-year period, this increase in skills would yield incomes that are an additional 64-percent higher.

We simply cannot expect to have a competitive American workforce if we don’t first have competitive American students. While education can and should continue to be primarily a state and local issue, its impact on our national economic competitiveness means the issue deserves national leadership. We don’t need a president serving as Superintendent-in-chief. Instead, we need a president to use the Bully Pulpit to rally state and local leaders to create consistent, challenging academic standards and provide the time and support for students to meet them. Our economic competitiveness and access to the best jobs in the future depends upon it.

–Marc Lampkin is the executive director of Strong American Schools’ ED in ‘08 campaign. He is also former senior aide to President Bush and House Minority Leader John Boehner.


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