More than three decades ago, America’s business and education leaders convinced President Reagan that our nation was indeed at risk of educational complacency. Our leaders must once again step up to urge President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to deliver a no-holds-barred analysis for our education system from early childhood to higher education—“A Nation at Risk 2.0” if you will.
We must identify our nation’s best and brightest to conduct this analysis. And to be effective and sustainable, this collaborative effort must be bipartisan and draw on the expertise from the public and private sectors—business and nonprofits, research and practitioners.
In many ways, we have come full circle from that pivotal moment in 1983 when the Department of Education released the original “A Nation at Risk,” an in-depth analysis that exposed the U.S. complacency towards its education system and the threat this created for our future.
When that report was released, we were at the cusp of a technological revolution—a new computer program called Microsoft Word was unveiled and cellular phones first became commercially available to U.S. consumers. These innovations transformed our society and celebrated America’s ingenuity. At the same time, we learned that about 13 percent of our 17-year-olds were functionally illiterate, SAT scores were dropping and students needed an increased array of remedial courses in college, according to the report issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.
This alarm bell was the starting point of many of the reforms we have seen in education since that time, including more rigorous curriculum and standards. While there have been incremental successes in educational progress, the rapid pace of change in our global economy and the educational advances of our international counterparts once again has put this nation at great risk of falling behind economically—an even greater risk than we faced in 1983.
For those who doubt, consider today’s national education results. An analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress scores shows nearly 6 out of 10 students don’t have the math or reading skills for entry-level college courses. NAEP results for fourth and eighth grades in 2013 also show:
- About a third of students are proficient in 4th grade reading, 8th grade reading, or 8th grade math.
- Only 4 in 10 students are proficient in 4th grade math, with some demographic groups of students performing much lower.
- About a fifth of African-American, Latino and Native American students are proficient in 4th and 8th grade reading, with only a fourth of low-income 4th graders proficient in math.
Globally, U.S. students ranked below the average of 34 countries in math and science on the 2012 international comparison PISA, the Programme for International Student Achievement. In addition, 11 countries rank ahead of the U.S. on college completion rate. The stark reality for our economic future is that national jobs data shows nearly 10 million unemployed people, but at the same time there are four million jobs available and unfilled due to a growing skills gap.
Right now, alarm bells should be clanging all over America louder than they were for President Reagan and business leaders more than 30 years ago.
America’s first graders today need a vastly different education than the first graders did in 1983, 2003, or even in 2013. They must be prepared for a life of continual learning and innovation precipitated by constant technological change in the workplace. Many of today’s jobs will either not exist or look vastly different by 2030.
The career skills needed for a work lifespan of 50 or 60 years, driven by exponential technological change, demands a re-engineering of personal outcomes for America’s future workforce. In 1983, we were in an embryonic stage of technology change. Now these seismic shifts are happening practically overnight.
More than 30 years after that landmark report, it’s time for America to dig deep again and take action on the transformational changes needed in our schools and society. We need to assess where we are educationally and economically, determine what kind of workforce we need and decide what kind of future we want for our next generation.
Until then, we will remain a nation at risk.