Teachers are indeed the backbone of progress in society. Often they work with little recognition, taking delight in individual students who master even the smallest concepts on the endless road of learning.

This is Teacher Appreciation Week, and it is appropriate to honor the men and women who stand at the heads of classrooms day after day, often with little recognition and generally with meager pay. Many successful adults can point to a teacher who inspired or helped them through life. The good ones are, as is often expressed, heroes.

It is important, as well, to recognize that, while poor educational performance in the United States should be one of the nation's chief concerns, criticism for this should not rest with teaching as a profession, nor with those who dedicate their lives to it. Teacher unions, on the other hand, often stand in the way of progress and keep the profession from nimbly keeping up with the times. The distinction is important.

This scenario has played itself out again and again nationwide, whether it's strikes and protests against changes in Wisconsin or school closures in Chicago, or successful efforts to overturn a school choice law in Utah.

The world is changing quickly, with many industries having to adapt quickly to technology that puts information and products as close to their customers as the nearest keyboard. New competitive forces are causing many to change course and become more responsive to the needs of the marketplace. This same technological revolution has opened a new world of learning to the average household that was unthinkable only a few years ago. For consumers of education, it is an exciting time, and yet public schools and higher education remain mired in old Industrial Age models.

U.S. school students compare dismally with those in other nations. The United States ranked 32nd among the 65 nations that participated in recent international tests administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The Bush Institute's Global Report Card paints a similarly dismal picture, comparing individual school districts in the United States with other nations.

Critics try to say the comparisons are unfair because other industrialized nations weed out their low performing students. But while this may have been the case many years ago, it is no longer true. Compulsory, universal education is the norm now among developed nations, especially in Europe.

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The United States needs to do more to empower both parents and students through school choice and online learning opportunities. Doing so would, in turn, empower teachers, especially when combined with a merit-based salary system that encourages and rewards innovation and competence. Charter schools offer ample evidence of the value of choice and competition. But while they now dot the Utah landscape, their emergence was difficult, at best, and few administrators or union officials see value in the next logical step, which would be to expand choice further.

Radical school reforms are necessary if the United States is to remain competitive globally. Today, too many good teachers are inhibited by rules and unrewarded for their extra efforts.

It is one thing to give lip service to the value of teachers, and quite another to empower them to use all their skills and abilities to excel. Given the level of dedication exhibited by many public school teachers, there should be no reason for such a poor performance by U.S. school students.