Building a Globally Competitive Workforce

Earlier this year, we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the landmark education reform law, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). That milestone provides the opportunity for us to look at the role the business community must play to improve education. We will not have businesses that thrive and grow in this global knowledge economy if we do not have an educated, skilled, and able workforce. We have the opportunity to look at where we are making progress in educating our nation’s students, where we need to go, and how we stack up to other countries. 

So where are we now? Despite the sobering statistics and the long way we have to go, we are making progress, much of which has occurred since the late 1990s. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, our nation’s education report card, African-American and Hispanic 9- and 13-year-olds in 2008 were performing at least a full grade level ahead of where they had been in 1999. The exception was Hispanic 9-year-olds, who were two grades ahead of where they had been. 

It’s not an accident that this progress happened after NCLB went into effect. By testing students from every zip code and background, the law has produced quality information that lets us know who needs help. By requiring all schools to make yearly progress and report it, parents could better engage. By calling for a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, it recognized teachers as the single most important factor in student achievement. By offering help like tutoring and the ability to transfer to a higher-performing public school, students have been able to get themselves back on track and achieve at grade level.

Despite this positive progress, we have a long, long way to go. Today, African-American students are nearly three times as likely to be identified for special education programs as white students. One-third of all students do not graduate from high school on time, and that number is about 50 percent for black and Hispanic students. 

Students in other countries continue to outperform American students on international tests. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) measures the math performance of 15-year-old students across the globe. In 2009, the last year for which test results are available, the United States ranked below the OECD average behind countries such as South Korea, Finland, Australia, Estonia, and Poland. Additionally, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, a test of 4th grade reading skills by the Institute for Education Studies, showed in 2006 that American students are performing above average but are still behind those in Russia, Germany, and Latvia.

This pattern is true for all of our students, including high performers and those who come from affluent families. A recent study found that only 6 percent of U.S. students perform at the advanced level in math, a figure that places the United States behind 30 other countries. Worse, however, are the comparisons between individual U.S. states and other countries. Our highest performing state, Massachusetts, ranked 17th compared to other countries, and our lowest performing states—Louisiana, West Virginia, New Mexico, and Mississippi—fall between Serbia and Chile. 

According to the Global Report Card issued by the Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University, achievement levels in U.S. school districts that are often viewed as the gold standard of American K-12 education are still lagging behind those in other countries. Districts like those in Greenwich, Conn., Palo Alto, Calif., and Reston, Va. are not measuring up internationally. In 2007, the math achievement scores of the average student in Beverly Hills was at the 53rd percentile internationally. Similarly, students in White Plains, N.Y., are in the 39th percentile, those in Evanston, Ill., are situated in the 48th percentile, and in Grosse Point, Mich., students are in the 56th percentile.

These results show that the need to improve our schools is not just an urban problem in the United States, which may come as a shock to the parents in suburbia. One of the age-old problems in education is that parents always think the system overall is broken but that their child attends a great school. In a 2011 survey, 51 percent of survey respondents gave their hometown schools an A or a B grade. We know that in many cases, however, that the schools given high marks are actually failing students. 

The correlation between academic achievement and economic growth is staggering. If we raised students’ math scores on international tests by 40 points, we would realize $75 trillion in economic gains by 2090. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, we have about 3.2 million unfilled jobs, while 14 million Americans are unemployed. Even worse, experts predict a shortage of 14 million college-educated workers by 2020.

More than half of business leaders say their companies face a major challenge in recruiting non-managerial employees with the right skills, training, and education. If we don’t pick up the pace, by 2020, there will be 123 million jobs in America defined as high-skilled and high-wage but only 50 million people will be qualified to fill them. Every single data point confirms that we must pick up the pace of education.

Instead of figuring out how to get more kids to match their grade level, we are debating issues such as the very existence of the U.S. Department of Education and the extent to which we should hold states and schools accountable. Often at the heart of these debates is what President Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” There are still people who believe that we should allow schools to continue to underperform because they believe that not all children can succeed. 

We in the business community are not asking for much—just for students to be able to read and cipher at grade level—the bare minimum any of us would want for our own children and the bare minimum our students need to access the American dream. 

When 15 percent of the nation’s schools produce more than half of the dropouts, it is clear that some schools should close their doors. Despite the fact that half of minority students do not graduate from high school on time, there is a feeling of complacency in our schools and little action occurs to fix these dropout factories. 

By being afraid to “stigmatize” or label those schools that are repeatedly identified as low-performing, we disregard the stigma of high school graduates failing to land a job or college freshmen forced to take remedial coursework because they do not have the right skills. In 2010, the private sector spent $50 billion on job training and remedial education. This is money that could have been used to hire more workers.

It’s frustrating that instead of tackling the very real issues of accountability and the achievement gap, most of the discussion in the United States is around how to slow down education rather than speed it up or takes issue with the premise that nearly all kids can achieve at basic levels in reading and math.

While the rest of the world is speeding ahead on innovation and human capital, our schools are in a time warp looking much like they did fifty years ago. While we use cell phones, iPads, and Kindles to access information tailored to our needs, students go to schools that use textbooks and paper and pencil tests. Parents and teachers wait for months to get test results and information on how their kids and their schools are doing—too late for them to use it to make better decisions.

Principles that have revolutionized nearly all areas of our lives—things such as competition, customization, technology, modern management, and a relentless focus on the customer—must be brought to bear in our schools. We must take advantage of America’s edge in innovation and competition like we have done in business. If customization and technology were really embraced, the school day and year would be tailored to individual students. 

We would pay the best teachers what they deserve and measure them by student results, not just seniority. Moreover, we would put our most skilled teachers in the most challenging settings instead of just the opposite, as we often do now. High-performing countries in education pay significant attention to attracting, selecting, and preparing their teachers. It’s time for us to do the same.

If we truly want to move forward, we must be open to learning what works around the world and on a much broader scale. Furthermore, we should see the value in school choice, alternative certification, adjunct faculty, and virtual instruction. 

As the U.S. Secretary of Education, I visited often with parents—of all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities—and asked them what they wanted. The hopes and dreams they held for their kids were the same as we have for ours: the skills to get a job and live the American dream. It’s time to get serious about this great promise to our children, our country, and our future. We are up to the task, and our children are counting on us.  n

Margaret Spellings serves as Executive Vice President of NCF. In this capacity Spellings provides both strategic and ongoing management leadership to the Foundation, including critical support around the Chamber’s American Free Enterprise. Dream Big. campaign. Spellings joined the Chamber in April 2009 as a Senior Advisor to the President and CEO. Before this, Spellings served as Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush. Spellings previously served as Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, where she aided in the development and passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.



President, George W. Bush Presidential Center and former U.S. Secretary of Education