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Educational decline is really our biggest problem

America has lost its competitive edge in relation to many other countries of the world.


What is the Number One problem facing the United States?

Many of you no doubt would say the current global economic crisis.

Those with a foreign policy bent might characterize the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the Number One problem.

Environmentalists would cite global warming. Nuclear proliferation would surely get some votes. Sri Lanka's cricket team would probably cite instability in Pakistan.

All of these problems are significant, but Number One in my book is simple: the decline of America's global educational advantage.

David Brooks, New York Times columnist, did a brilliant Op Ed on this topic titled "The Biggest Issue."

He notes that America's ascent to become the leading economic power of the 20th century came from an "unparalleled commitment to education, hard work, and economic freedom."

This issue is assessed in an excellent book, "The Race Between Education and Technology" by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz.

Because of the "amazingly steady" growth in educational progress from 1900 through 1950, the U.S. opened up an enormous lead over other developed countries.

In 1950, no European country enrolled even 30 percent of its teens in full-time secondary school. At that time the United States enrolled 70 percent of our teens, a figure that peaked in 1970 at 80 percent.

Through neglect and hubris, America's educational attainments stagnated completely between 1975 and 1990.

Our lead over the rest of the world now has been entirely lost. Many nations have surged ahead of us in educational attainment.

In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's education attainment statistics, U.S. students are now middle of the pack.

In a world economy where America's competitive advantage is increasingly dependent on knowledge-based skills, our educational decline is nothing less than catastrophic.

In spite of these incontestable facts, we continue to be smug about our situation and prospects. In annual polls Americans routinely give their community schools at least a B grade.

We have been shielded from the effects of this educational decline in part by the ability of our universities to attract foreign talent and in part by the fact that this decline has taken years to play out.

Have fear. We will reap what we have sown in our self-satisfied approach to educational attainment. One of the strongest indicators of economic growth in individual states over the past 20 years has been the proportion of college graduates.

Yet in public universities across this country the graduation rate has been slowly sinking and now stands at just above 50 percent.

Moreover, this sad graduation rate would be lower but for the disproportionate number of women now in our universities (thank goodness). The graduation rate for men is barely above 40 percent. Can you believe this? Check out the performance of the University of Maine system in this regard. It is representative.

The net of all this is a situation in which the current generation of men will be the first in the history of this country to be less well-educated than the generations that went before them.

President Obama, to his credit, gets it. He is proposing putting substantial federal funding into more innovative approaches to education, particularly in his efforts in pre-K and in the K-12 arena. We should welcome these initiatives.

For Maine there should be opportunity to fund initiatives such as expanding the laptop initiative to high school. This is an area where Maine has led the nation and, indeed, the world.

We should also consider significantly expanding our currently modest program to permit high school students to take college courses, part of redeeming their senior year.

Then there is the issue of improving the quality of our teachers.

Several studies have shown that nothing trumps the quality of the teacher as an impact on student learning.

Let's use some of our stimulus money to develop a system that rewards teachers who actually improve student performance.

On the higher ed front, let's fund a pilot program at one of the UMaine system campuses to provide all freshmen and sophomores with the kind of mentoring program that the Mitchell Institute has pioneered with its Mitchell Scholars, whose graduation rate is above 95 percent.

As many have pointed out, the stimulus money only provides two years of funding. We should use it to seed innovative approaches that, once proven, have the ability to be supported longer term.

We are on the edge of the precipice with our educational system. We must leverage the money, ideas and enthusiasm of a new administration in Washington to move Maine and United States back up the ladder of educational attainment.

There is not a moment to be lost.