Economic growth in America and globally is, in part, dependent upon the enhanced use of technology. As a result, new demands are being placed on the workforce and different expectations required of the education system. Higher education is no longer a “nice-to-have”. By the end of this decade, two-thirds of American jobs will require at least some higher education. Other nations are seeing similar trends and preparing accordingly. That means more students need to be educated to higher levels of learning than ever before. Not a small task.
For America, that task is the source of some well-placed angst, in part, because we have lost ground on some important education measures in recent years. We have slipped in international rankings of reading, math, and science achievement, and we no longer rank first in college degree attainment. Competition among nations has become fierce. The sheer number of nations actively competing for a share of the marketplace is higher than at any other point. It is why we must ensure that our education system keeps pace with these and other changes.
I have had the chance to see firsthand the kinds of investments other governments are making to prepare their citizens to compete in the knowledge-based economy. In my travels overseas, I have witnessed heroic efforts to build schools in war-torn countries and visited with first generation female students heading off to college, hungry to learn and inspired by their international peers. Just as the auto industry has learned, while America may have pioneered motorcars, innovation knows no boundaries. With regard to education, other nations have long observed and are now perfecting their instruction based on what they see is working in America and elsewhere. The challenge for America, like the auto industry in the 1980s, is to be open to learning from other nations, even if the lessons disrupt the status quo.
To lead the way once more in education, America must be nimble. We need to embrace new ways of doing business and use time and resources more effectively. We must tap the intellectual might of every sector and collaborate on ideas and invention. We can and must move beyond economic competition to shared economic growth. To do this, strong leadership is needed.
I was privileged to work for an American president who made education a priority, quite literally, from day one in office. He never wavered from the principles that were the foundation of his policies: accountability and transparency. He empowered citizens to make excellent educational choices for their children by providing them with information and choices. He demanded that there be accountability for results. And he was relentless in his pursuit to close the achievement gap. He understood that until our schools work for all students, they are not working.
This vision embraced by a citizenry that includes more than 40 million immigrants–even if not fully realized–is a source of hope around the world. We must hold firm to the American dream–that with freedom, an education, and an aspiration, every student can make his or her own success.
Margaret Spellings is President and CEO of Margaret Spellings & Company, a public policy and strategic consulting firm committed to providing expertise to solve America’s most challenging issues. She is a strategic advisor to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and President of its U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation. Spellings served as White House Domestic Policy Advisor and Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's January/February 2013 print edition.