Back to School

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Cross-posted from the International Herald Tribune.

During his trip to Asia last November, President Barack Obama sat down to a working lunch with South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, in Seoul. In the space of little more than a generation, South Korea has developed one of the world’s best-educated work forces and fastest-growing economies. “What is the biggest education challenge you have?” President Obama asked Lee. Without hesitating, Lee replied, “The biggest challenge I have is that my parents are too demanding.”

That anecdote usually makes Americans chuckle—and wince. It highlights how U.S. students are falling behind their peers in advanced nations in the global race for economic competitiveness. Yet the relationship between education and international competitiveness is a subject rife with misunderstanding.

For too long, policymakers, lawmakers, and voters have treated competitiveness solely as a zero-sum game, in which another nation’s gain is necessarily America’s loss. In fact, enhancing educational achievement and attainment—at home and abroad—is more a win-win game.

Globalization means that U.S. students will have to compete throughout their careers with their peers in Canada, China, India, European countries and other rapidly developing states. At the same time, international competition has increased international collaboration, making education a public good unconstrained by national boundaries. The U.S. economy, for example, benefits enormously when educational attainment rises from an inflow of well-educated immigrants and from rising demand for U.S. products from better-educated populations overseas. Even when products are manufactured overseas by foreign companies, U.S. entrepreneurs are well positioned to benefit through innovation at home.

Not everyone will share equally in the benefits of the new knowledge economy: Those with the most to gain will be college-educated workers. A generation ago, the United States had the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Now, it has fallen from first to ninth in the proportion of young people with college degrees. Although 58 percent of young adults in South Korea and 56 percent in Canada have earned at least an associate’s degree, only 42 percent of young adults in the United States have achieved the same milestone.

While advancing education everywhere brings benefits at home, U.S. workers will be comparatively better off if they lead the world in educational attainment. That is why President Obama has set a bipartisan goal that America will again lead the world in college completion by 2020.

In the global economy, how well U.S. students perform is a critical yardstick. Unfortunately, the academic achievement of U.S. high school students is mediocre. Few reforms are more necessary to reaffirming the U.S. role as the world’s engine for scientific discovery and technological innovation than strengthening education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But, strengthening the communication skills, creativity and problem-solving capability of students is crucial, too. Employers repeatedly report that they seek college graduates with the ability to adapt, innovate, synthesize data, communicate effectively, learn independently and work in teams.

Fortunately, the American system of higher education is in many respects the envy of the world. Its blend of top-ranked research universities, liberal arts colleges, comprehensive state universities and a robust community-college system provides unparalleled access to students of all backgrounds. In the years ahead, U.S. postsecondary institutions will also need to adapt to cope with the influx of older students—and the fact that most students now work at least part-time.

The United States has a unique opportunity today to reverse its declining economic competitiveness. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package enacted by Congress in February 2009, included nearly $100 billion for education, the largest investment of its kind by the federal government in history. It also granted the U.S. Department of Education more than $5 billion in competitive discretionary funding—more than the total of all such funding provided to the department since it was established 30 years ago.

A second transformational reform is the voluntary adoption by at least 36 states of the state-crafted Common Core Standards, which measure students’ readiness for college or careers. For the first time, most states will apply rigorous, internationally benchmarked standards in math and English, bringing tougher standards to more than three-fourths of all U.S. public-school students. It is time to end the insidious practice of dumbing down academic standards—and lying to students about their readiness for college and careers.

Still, strengthening U.S. economic competitiveness will also require a sea change in attitudes. International economic competition should not be seen exclusively as a threat, but rather as a healthy inducement to learn from and collaborate with other nations.

Thinking of the future as a contest among nations vying for larger pieces of a finite economic pie is a recipe for protectionism and global strife. The economic prosperity of the United States ultimately rests not only on its ability to strengthen its education system but also on citizens in other states raising their living standards. Expanding educational attainment everywhere is the best way to grow the economic pie for all.

Arne Duncan is U.S. secretary of education. A longer version of this article will appear in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs.