Join us in Seattle on June 26-29 for the NCEE Leaders Retreat. Learn more here.

Cross-posted on Education Week

The Council on Foreign Relations issued a report on American education last week that got a big play in the press.  In case you missed it, “U.S. Education Reform and National Security” does just what you thought it might–it charges that the sorry state of American education constitutes a clear and present danger to national security.

And they are right; it does.  Economists, military analysts and historians are in agreement that, these days, the ability to project military might is a function of national economic strength.  And, these days, economists are pretty much agreed that the strength of a national economy is heavily dependent on the skills of the national workforce.

But the Council’s report goes further than that, to point out, as many have before, that the 25 percent of students who drop out of school are not qualified to serve in the military.  The same can be said of the 30 percent who graduate but don’t know enough math, science and English to meet the standard set by the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.  That means that more than half of our young people are not qualified to serve in any capacity in the Armed Services of the United States.

An Army general in a position to know is quoted as saying that the fact that many recruits cannot read the training manuals for the technically sophisticated equipment the Army uses constitutes “an imminent and menacing threat to our national security.”

Our military and intelligence services are very dependent on our ability to stay at the leading edge of many technologies, especially information technology.  Thirty-three percent of Chinese university graduates have a degree in engineering, compared to 4.5 percent of American university graduates (this is a huge number even recognizing that not all Chinese engineering degrees are equal to the degrees U.S. engineering graduates obtain).  Foreign students in U.S. engineering schools earn 57 percent of those degrees and most are not eligible to stay in the United States once they have their degree.  The shortage of qualified engineers, scientists and mathematicians is a serious problem for the entire defense establishment.

Our State Department and intelligence services are facing critical shortages of people who have the necessary language skills.  But, in Afghanistan, many of the Foreign Service officers in language-designated positions do not have the language skills they are supposed to have to fill those positions.  More broadly, few of our troops and officers have the cultural literacy they need to do their jobs.

None of this is news.  Indeed, almost all of the data about the problem has been produced and reproduced in countless documents over the years, but it should be sobering that the organization that, more than any other, represents the American foreign policy establishment, thinks that the state of the American education system represents a clear and present danger to the security of the United States.

There is nothing wrong and everything right with their call to action.  The problem is the solutions they offer.  There are three of them.

The first calls for adding to the Common Core State Standards other standards for science, technology and foreign languages.  That is followed by a brief call for more “meaningful assessments,” two sentences half-heartedly calling for unspecified changes in the way schools are financed and less than a sentence on raising standards for entrance into teachers colleges and giving teachers the skills they need to succeed.

Then the author warms to her first major theme, empowering educators, families, and students to choose.  This section goes on for pages and extols the virtues of various forms of public and private choice in American education.  Choice is presented as the American way, a close cousin of our penchant for innovation and the best way to assure a continuing wave of innovation, the lack of which is presented as the most serious problem confronting our public education system.

The last major recommendation calls for a regular national education audit, which would provide a wide range of disaggregated data in a uniform format for schools, districts and states across the nation.

I find this bizarre.  Of all the major organizations in the United States, the Council on Foreign Relations should be among the first to call for a serious look at the strategies that other countries have used to surpass us in the field of public education.  In the first half of the report, they dutifully present the data showing the extent of our shortfall when compared to other countries, and in the opening text they describe some of the specific policies that these countries use to achieve their aims.  But then, in the second half of the report, when it comes to figuring out what to do, they behave like their isolationist opponents; as if the rest of the world does not exist, had nothing to teach us, and is irrelevant.

The Council on Foreign Relations has an interesting policy on listing the members of its task forces.  It will not release the names of the members until the reports are published.  Any member that wishes to disassociate himself or herself from the report may do so, but that person’s name will not be on the report.  It is as if that person never participated at all.  Members that disagree also have the option of staying on the task force and writing a dissent to the recommendations.  Several of the members of this task force did exactly that including Linda Darling-Hammond (these additional and dissenting views can be found at the end of the report).

As Darling-Hammond points out, the countries that are beating the pants off us did not get there by privatizing their schools or promoting competition among them.  They did it by strengthening their public schools, in many cases by promoting cooperation among them.  She corrects statements made in the report designed to suggest that the evidence shows that privatization and competition among schools in the United States have been proven to be successful education reform strategies in this country (they have not).  She points out that the world’s top-performing countries have invested in public education systems that serve all students, and goes on to say that the record of at least one country–Chile–shows that aggressive privatization used as a school reform strategy has produced a “huge and growing divide between rich and poor that has led to dangerous levels of social unrest.”

If the presumably internationalist authors of this report had been interested in the strategies used by the top-performing countries to beat us, they would not only have cited the fact that these countries greatly raised their standards for getting into and graduating from teachers colleges in their problem statement, but they would have focused on this fact in the solutions they offered.  But they did not do that.

If they really cared about what it takes to drive student achievement up across the board, they would have emphasized much more than they did the grossly unfair distribution of financial resources among schools in this country and called for the United States to do what our most successful competitors do: put more money behind students who are harder to educate to high standards than those who are easier to educate.  But they did not do that, either.

If their aim was to produce changes in student performance on the scale they say they are after, they would hardly have spent time extolling the virtues of Teach for America (TFA) as their ideal with respect to teaching policy.  TFA supplies only about 4,500 of the 200,000 new teachers this country needs every year.  Given its design, TFA cannot be scaled to do much more than that.  It was never intended to be the answer to America’s teacher quality problems.  There is plenty of evidence from other countries about the policies they used to produce entire teacher workforces of the quality of the TFA group.  The Council’s task force might have placed those findings at the core of its recommendations, but it failed to do that.

Looking at the pattern of the dissents to this report, it is clear that the sponsors of this report did an admirable job of assembling a diverse group of participants for the Task Force.  And then they did a thorough job of ignoring the advice they got from those closest to teachers and schools.  That is not what our most successful competitors have done.  Those who argue that strong accountability systems and market mechanisms will power this country to superior achievement in the education arena have strong political support, but there is precious little evidence that their agenda will work.  Every year we spend pursuing that agenda is a year lost in addressing the important challenges identified by this task force.