Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released its Leaders & Laggards report on K-12 education. The data paint a grim picture. Without meaningful reform and sustained improvement, the United States will lose its edge in global competition, put the economy at risk and consign future generations of Americans to limited opportunities.

Acknowledging that we have a problem is the “easy” part. Addressing it is where things get tough.

Here are five ways we can work to improve our education system:

First, stay the course on accountability. It’s not always popular, but accountability is crucial to closing the achievement gap. If there are no consequences for underperforming schools, the status quo will prevail and broad swaths of students — most of them minority or low income — will continue to slip through the cracks. This is unacceptable for a nation founded on the promise of opportunity, and it’s a recipe for economic decline.

Second, allow choice. When schools prove to be chronically failing, parents should have the option to send their children somewhere else — whether a public or private school or online learning. If schools know there is an alternative, they’ll up their game — and the competition will serve students well.

Third, demand higher standards and implement them. We’ve seen a nationwide movement to raise standards so that our students are better prepared for college or career and can contend with international competitors. This signals progress, but we’ve seen implementation of initiatives, like the Common Core State Standards, lag as opponents or advocates for the status quo spread misinformation. We must drive the debate forward.

Fourth, encourage innovation. Though there are exceptions, the American classroom has been virtually untouched by the technology revolution that has swept the rest of society. The smart deployment of technology could empower teachers, engage students, customize learning, and make schools and districts more efficient. Data should also be used to improve students’ performance, enabling educators to predict successes and intervene when risks emerge.

Fifth, educate our students to be competitive — and employable. High-growth sectors like information technology require a workforce with advanced skills. We must increase access to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, encourage students to pursue STEM studies earlier and with greater focus, and better train STEM educators.

Some of these changes will be difficult to implement and met with resistance. But can we really afford the alternative, which is to do nothing at all? Our students deserve better, and our economy and competitiveness demand more.

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