Enhancing U.S. Education and Competitiveness

A Review of Enhancing U.S. Education and Competiveness
an article in Foreign Affairs by Arne Duncan

Review by Linda Martin, guest blogger 

In Enhancing U.S. Education and Competiveness, an article which appears in the November/December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan links U.S. economic competitiveness directly to the American educational system. The news is sobering. U.S. competiveness is sliding. The causes− low educational performance of U.S. students; teaching systems that fail to deliver on preparing students for 21st century employment; and protectionist attitudes towards international educational investment.

“The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.”– President Barak Obama

Through eye-opening statistics, Duncan demonstrates how the problem starts early in the education cycle and continues through college.  By the end of 2010, “the portion of U.S jobs demanding a postsecondary education will be 63%” and the discrepancy between supply and demand is growing.  Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that the United States will be short 3 million college graduates by 2018. According to Duncan, potential solutions include:

  • Implementing reforms, including STEM (Science, Technology and Math) programs; new Pell Grants and new K-12 competency standards.
  • Upgrading language requirements, expanding multicultural learning opportunities and offering incentives to boost the number of  teachers in foreign languages fields;
  • Channeling spending toward the most challenged students;
  • Relinquishing protectionist views towards international education, and embracing an ethic in which “advancing education everywhere brings benefits to everyone.”
  • Supporting new technology based knowledge delivery systems; and higher quality teacher training.

Duncan paints the picture of a U.S. economy with growing needs for an educated workforce, and an education system that is not keeping pace.  Technology has dramatically increased the demand for skilled college graduates, who compete worldwide for positions in the global marketplace. Yet in one generation, “the U.S. has fallen from first to fifth position among developed countries with the most college graduates, and ranks ninth in college completion rates among 25 to 34 year olds”.  

In an unprecedented effort, the U.S. government is investing $3.7 billion in STEM (Science, Technology and Math) programs, including $1 billion for K-12 initiatives. Yet research has shown that money alone will not suffice. “With the exception of Luxembourg, the United States spends more per elementary student than any other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nation.”  At the secondary level, only 3 countries spend more per student, and no other country spends as much as the U.S., at the college level. 

Developed nations with higher educational performance rates than the U.S. target their resources to students with the most need. In the United States, however, school funding often depends on tax levies that reflect the affluence of local communities. Duncan quotes an observation by Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association,  that “other developed nations are more successful at recruiting talented teachers, providing first-rate teaching preparation and professional development, and honoring the teaching profession. Unlike in the United States, in South Korea teachers come from the top ten percent of graduates — and those who teach are viewed as making an important contribution to building their nation”.

Duncan makes the point that investments in STEM, while laudable, need to be balanced with investments in other areas. Employers lament the inability of the educational system to cultivate the skills they want – “the ability to adapt, innovate, synthesize data, communicate effectively, learn independently, and work in teams.”  New and expanded initiatives in multi-cultural learning, language acquisition, and the arts and humanities, can provide a more fertile ground for building the combination of intellectual, creative, humanistic, and professional skills needed to compete and collaborate in the 21st century.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands,” that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.”–          Nelson Mandela

The dilemma the U.S. faces in foreign language acquisition exemplifies the systemic nature of the problem.  Elementary school is a time where language is perhaps easiest to learn, yet only 1 in 4 schools offer foreign language studies.  At the secondary level, according to Duncan, “only 10 U.S. states have foreign language requirements in order to graduate, while 75 % of states have reported shortages in foreign-language teachers (2007-08 figures)”.  Without exposure to other cultures and languages, what motivation do students have to consider teaching language as a profession, or to consider other occupations where the ability to communicate with colleagues from diverse cultural backgrounds is critical?  Duncan points out, “In 2002, just months after 9/11, U.S. postsecondary institutions nationwide awarded only six bachelor’s degrees in Arabic language and literature. By 2008, the total had risen only to 57”.

One thing we can all do that does not require money or other resources, is to realize that “expanding educational attainment everywhere is the best way to grow the pie for all”. Better-educated populations abroad mean greater markets for U.S. goods; a globally educated population can better meet challenges that the U.S. cannot achieve alone; research confirms that a better educated world is a less violent world; and well-educated immigrants help our economy. Per writer Ben Wildavsky, “from 1995 to 2005, immigrants started one-fourth of all engineering and technology companies in the U.S.” 

Along with our global competitors, we can gain from sharing best practices. For example, the American traditions of free inquiry and peer-reviewed research are held in esteem by many countries, and we are unrivaled in providing educational access to students of all socioeconomic levels.

Given American innovation in the field of technology, we can choose to take a leadership role in expanding educational access globally while responding to new U.S. student demographics.  We can do this by combining successful classroom based experiences with “technology-rich learning environments, online classes, distance learning, and electronic instruction.”

Improving the U.S. educational system, and in so doing so, the U.S. economy, requires a strong and serious commitment at all levels of the U.S. government, partnerships with the private sector and community activism. It requires collaboration with other nations and sharing of best practices, to the benefit of all concerned. Success depends on a new mindset of mutual and shared progress; a stronger valuing of the teaching profession and higher quality teacher training; new ways to deliver knowledge; and a balanced investment at all levels of education. Working together, schools can cultivate the skills employers want and the world needs to solve global problems. Duncan delivers a thorough analysis of the challenges and the solutions that can help the U.S. restore its educational capital, and establish itself as 21st century world leader in educational innovation.  

*according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, China