If Our Schools Fail, Do the Terrorists Win?

A new report details the national-security implications of a deteriorating American public schools system

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School children practice "duck and cover," October 25, 1962, during a disaster drill in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Education is one of those subjects where importance and genuine public interest are usually out of proportion. It’s a vital national concern with every kind of implication you can think of—moral, economic, you name it—that consumes a great deal of political oxygen to little real effect.

A word of disclosure: my wife has long worked in educational reform—from a charter school in Harlem, to the Fund for Public Schools during the administration of New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, to her current focus on the common core standards that are to be implemented in most states by 2014.

(MORE: Can GE Help Bring Common Core Standards to Life?)

My own interest in the subject is less sophisticated and more general. I accept the premise of a new report from a Council on Foreign Relations-Sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Education Reform and National Security, a panel whose conclusions argue—convincingly, in my view—that our poor national educational performance is now having a demonstrably corrosive effect on our national security.

The task force’s co-chairs, Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein, put it well, writing:

“It is not hyperbole to say that the state of education in our country is a challenge to our national security. Human capital has never been more important for success in our increasingly competitive world economy. Yet, although the United States invests more in education than almost any other developed nation, its students rank in the middle of the pack in reading and toward the bottom in math and science. On average, U.S. students have fallen behind peers in Korea and China, Poland and Germany, Canada and New Zealand. This puts us on a trajectory toward massive failure.

“Our schools simply must do better. It is essential too that we provide a base of knowledge for our students in order to produce citizens who can serve in the Foreign Service, the intelligence community, and the armed forces. Today, the State Department is struggling to recruit enough foreign language speakers, U.S. generals are cautioning that enlistees cannot read training manuals for sophisticated equipment, and an after action report from the XVIII Airborne Corps in Iraq found that out of 250 intelligence personnel, less than 5 had the “aptitude to put pieces together to form a conclusion.” For the United States to maintain its role of military and diplomatic leadership, it needs highly qualified and capable men and women to conduct its foreign affairs. Knowledge of the world and of foreign languages is essential.”

I’m the wrong Meacham to ask (see above), but if Rice and Klein and the formidable roster of task force members put together by CFR president Richard N. Haass think we’re in trouble on this front, then I’m with them.

Klein and Rice recommend:

· Implementing educational expectations and assessments in subjects vital to protecting national security. States should expand the Common Core State Standards and implement assessments that more meaningfully measure student achievement. Children in every state must have strong foundations in science, technology, and foreign language, and skills like creative thinking and problem solving if they are to be competitive nationally and globally.

· Making structural changes to provide all students with meaningful choices. States and school districts should give parents a much wider range of educational options so that children are not trapped in failing schools. Choice is especially important for poor parents who are more likely to live in districts with underperforming schools; mobility gives these children vital options. Enhanced choice and competition amongst schools, in an environment of equitable resource allocation, will fuel the innovation necessary to transform results.

· Launching a “national security readiness audit” to hold schools and policymakers accountable for results and to raise public awareness. We need a stronger and more coordinated effort to assess school-level information — from basic educational outcomes like the proportion of students passing courses and graduating from high school to specific national security-related skills such as mastering foreign languages and computer skills.

There were very interesting dissents from the task force members, chiefly Randi Weingarten of the United Federation of Teachers, and Harvard University’s Stephen Walt, who says the report “exaggerates the national security rationale for reforming US K-12 education.” No country is likely to match America’s overall military power and technological supremacy for decades, he says, adding: “There are good reasons to improve K-12 education, but an imminent threat to our national security is not high among them.”

(MORE: Can Parents Take Over Schools?)

Here’s one thing we can all, I think, agree on: the issues surrounding education, particularly public education, deserve the kind of sustained attention that the nation gave such matters during the Cold War, when the existential threat of the Soviet Union (from Sputnik forward) informed our domestic life with the same sense of high national purpose we now devote more exclusively to the realm of foreign policy. The CFR report gives us an opportunity to have a more serious debate about all of these things—a debate that has thus far been almost wholly absent from the presidential campaign.

Here’s the good news: it’s not too late to create the kind of public interest in the discussion that’s more commensurate with its significance to all of us.

(MORE: Why It’s Time To Replace No Child Left Behind)