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Tom Donohue: Is Our K-12 Education System Lagging Behind?

Over the past few weeks, American students have gone back to school in droves. What they learn, or don’t learn, this coming year and throughout their K-12 education will have significant bearing on their individual future — as well as the collective future of this nation.

It’s well-documented that a quality education is often the difference between a life of opportunity and success and one of poverty and struggle. A high school graduate will earn almost $500,000 more than a dropout over the course of a lifetime, and a university graduate will earn some $800,000 more than a college dropout.

More broadly, a strong education system is crucial to fostering a skilled workforce that can compete for 21st-century jobs in a global economy, producing the next generation of leaders and sustaining a strong domestic economy.

So is our system preparing our students to be successful? Is it setting our nation up for competitiveness and prosperity?

Not well, according to the latest edition of Leaders & Laggards, a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation that evaluates the effectiveness of our education system on a state-by-state basis. Though our nation boasts many excellent schools, a number of troubling indicators show that our larger system is lagging behind in more ways than it is leading.

The study demonstrates that we’re falling behind our international competitors. Even the most advantaged U.S. students (who far outperform their disadvantaged peers) are barely in the middle of the pack when stacked up against the students of global competitors. They are being outperformed in science, technology, engineering, math and foreign languages, skills that are increasingly vital in a global economy.

Money is also a factor. Many states are hamstrung by unfunded pension liabilities, undercutting investments in public education. Yet other states show that money alone doesn’t guarantee better academic performance. There was wide variance on return on education investment dollars, with some states pouring more and more into education and still having some of the worst outcomes.

The news isn’t all bad, however. Since the inaugural report in 2007, every state has seen varying degrees of improvement in its academic performance — though progress is uneven and many pockets of badly underserved students continue to exist. Most states have made advances in raising standards and focusing on college and career preparation. Now we must make greater progress in implementing those standards.

Business has a stake in education; therefore, it has a responsibility to help lead with solutions. Tune in to next week’s column where I’ll focus on some of the education reforms that the business community supports.

— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The opinions expressed are his own.

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