GUEST COLUMN: Courage, Commitment, and Collaboration

In the 21st century, more than ever before, education is a nation’s economic engine. Ensuring that U.S. workers have the skills and training they need to compete in the global marketplace is a cornerstone of an economy that’s built to last, as well as the best means to deliver on the promise of the American dream.

Right now, U.S. employers face a skills shortage that threatens our great traditions of entrepreneurship, productivity, leadership in the world economy—and a thriving middle class. Far too many students aren’t getting the high-quality education and training they need to compete for jobs in the knowledge-based economy. Over time, an undereducated U.S. population could slow the innovation that creates new industries and more jobs. And there would be stark long-term consequences for “average” performance on the world stage.

We have an education crisis in our country. Twenty-five percent of students aren’t graduating from high school on time. There are 1,500 U.S. schools that produce around half of our nation’s high school dropouts—schools where fewer than 60% of freshmen are still enrolled as seniors. More than one-third of all first-time students who enter four-year colleges and two-thirds of all first-time students who enter community colleges fail to graduate within six years, and more than one-third of college students need remediation. Improving educational achievement for our students is not just a moral issue, it is a national imperative, to ensure the economic vitality and the national security of the United States. For example, 75% of U.S. citizens ages 17 to 24 are not qualified to join the military because they are physically unfit, have criminal records, or have inadequate levels of education. An undereducated population poses an especially urgent threat to the defense and aerospace industries that contribute to our military readiness and our security sector.

We have to act boldly and decisively to turn the tide. That’s why, soon after taking office, President Obama established an ambitious goal for our nation: By 2020, the United States will once again have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates, and the world’s most competitive workforce. And he has called on every American to complete at least one year of postsecondary education or training.

To achieve this, we need to engage everyone—parents, teachers, principals, students, business and civic leaders, nonprofits, and the entire community—in a variety of strategies to increase our educational productivity and give us the means to bring postsecondary education or skills-rich training within reach of every American. It requires courageous action to make the changes that will truly prepare today’s students to achieve, and narrow the gap that leaves too many students without the skills they need to compete.

Over the past three years, our nation has made tremendous progress in education reform. Through the leadership of governors and chief state school officers, 46 states have raised standards for teaching and learning that are aligned with college and career expectations. They are game-changers in education. For too long, students didn’t understand until they graduated that they weren’t prepared to do college-level work or succeed on the job. These standards level the playing field by setting a high bar for everyone—one that prepares all students for high-wage, high-skills jobs.

It’s important to emphasize that these standards are designed to prepare students for both college and careers. Too often, people focus on college readiness, and career readiness is an afterthought. Setting a high bar for career readiness is essential because many students may not pursue the traditional path to a four-year degree. A career-ready student must have the knowledge and skills that employers need from day one. In an increasing number of trades and professions, new employees need critical thinking and problem-solving skills, the ability to synthesize information, solid communication skills, and the ability to work on a team. They will also need to advance their careers through postsecondary education, whether it’s a two-year degree, a professional certificate, or advanced coursework. The students who succeed in those programs most quickly will be those who can take college-level courses without remediation.

Progress at the local level is happening because of bold leadership at the state and local level. At the U.S. Department of Education, our job is to encourage and support K–12 reforms and make college affordable so all students can attend college and eventually earn a degree or market-recognized credential. Since 2009, the Obama administration has devoted significant resources to K–12 reform and made historic investments in financial aid. Thus far, through the Race to the Top program, 21 states and the District of Columbia are pursuing comprehensive efforts to reform their schools and create early learning programs that prepare children for success in elementary school. To help students pay for college, we’ve worked with Congress to raise the maximum Pell Grant and make these grants available to more than 9 million students—a 50% increase since 2008. What’s more, the administration has offered graduates new options to make student loan payments manageable and encourage them to enter public service careers such as teaching and public safety.

Given the strategic role community colleges play in addressing the nation’s workforce development challenges—including enabling displaced and returning workers to “skill up” for new careers—we’re making available $2 billion in grants, in partnership with the Department of Labor, to help community colleges and others develop or expand programs that train skilled workers in direct partnerships with business. We’ve also released an ambitious blueprint to leverage $1.1 billion in funding and usher in an era of rigorous, relevant, results-driven career and technical education—meeting the needs of business and industry, and giving students clear pathways to well-paying, in-demand occupations.

All these efforts will prepare the children and young adults of today with the skills they need to succeed in today’s workplace. But this nation can’t transform our education system and help all our students develop the skills they need to compete unless the private sector is deeply involved. We need its significant and sustained leadership.

The challenges facing our nation are significant and they are urgent. Nevertheless, I am confident that together—with courage, commitment, and collaboration—we can meet and master them. Together, we can extend America’s great tradition of excellence and innovation, secure our nation’s strength and prosperity for generations to come, and help students succeed in school and in the workplace.

On September 20, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce will hold an event titled, "Help Wanted: Addressing the Skills Gap" to discuss these issues and more. To register, please visit the event webpage. You will also be able to watch the webcast here.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.