WASHINGTON — The nation's security and economic prosperity are at risk if America's schools don't improve, warns a task force led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City's school system.
The report, obtained by The Associated Press, cautions that far too many schools fail to adequately prepare students. "The dominant power of the 21st century will depend on human capital," it said. "The failure to produce that capital will undermine American security."
The task force said the State Department and U.S. intelligence agencies face critical shortfalls in the number of foreign language speakers, and that fields such as science, defense and aerospace are at particular risk because a shortage of skilled workers is expected to worsen as baby boomers retire.
According to the panel, 75 percent of young adults don't qualify to serve in the military because they are physically unfit, have criminal records or inadequate levels of education. That's in part because 1 in 4 students fails to graduate from high school in four years, and a high school diploma or the equivalent is needed to join the military. But another 30 percent of high school graduates don't do well enough in math, science and English on an aptitude test to serve in the military, the report said.
The task force, consisting of 30 members with backgrounds in areas such as education and foreign affairs, was organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based research and policy organization focused on international issues. The report was scheduled to be released Tuesday.
Too many Americans are deficient in both global awareness and knowledge that is "essential for understanding America's allies and its adversaries," the report concludes.
"Leaving large swaths of the population unprepared also threatens to divide Americans and undermines the country's cohesion, confidence, and ability to serve as a global leader," the report said.
Rice and Klein said in interviews that they are encouraged by efforts to improve schools such as the adoption of "common core" standards set in reading and math in a vast majority of states and the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" competition, in which states compete for federal money in exchange for more meaningful teacher evaluations.
But, they added, the pace to improve America's schools must accelerate.
"The rest of the world is not sitting by while we, in a rather deliberate fashion, reform the education system," Rice said.
Klein said he hopes the findings will prompt discussions beyond the education community that engage those in the defense and foreign policy establishments about how to improve schools.
"I don't think people have really thought about the national security implications and the inability to have people who speak the requisite languages who can staff a volunteer military, the kind of morale and human conviction you need to hold a country together. I don't think people have thought about it in those terms," Klein said.
The panel makes three main recommendations:
Adopt and expand the common core initiative to include skill sets critical to national security such as science, technology and foreign languages;
Structural changes to provide students with more choices in where they can go to school, so many students aren't stuck in underperforming schools;
A national security readiness audit, prepared by governors working with the federal government, that can be used to judge whether schools are meeting national expectations in education.
Not all panel members agreed with all the task force findings. One dissenting opinion said a proposed national audit will only increase the pressure to focus on standardized tests and that money would be better used to improve the neediest school districts. That opinion was issued by Carole Artigiani, founder of Global Kids Inc., and agreed to by Stephen Walt, an international affairs professor at Harvard, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Weingarten, in another dissent, said that some elements of the report undermine schools, and that school choice options such as vouchers and charters, which use public funds but are run by a third party, have not proven to be sustainable or to improve schools. Artigiani and Walt supported that argument.
In an interview, Weingarten said it doesn't make sense to provide an "opt-out" option with school choice, when public schools should be strengthened instead.