Guest Column

The Other National Security Issue

by Thomas L. Rogers and Paul D. Houston

In October 1957, a Soviet satellite launch exposed America’s lagging technological superiority and catalyzed an urgent effort to improve domestic engineering capacity. Orbiting overhead every 90 minutes, Sputnik was impossible for even ordinary citizens to ignore.

The space race, culminating with the Apollo moon landings, reached an urgency that at times bordered on hysteria, but eventually yielded many collateral benefits including an economy driven by math, science and engineering innovation.

Our nation again faces an international technological deficit that makes our future just as insecure. The National Academies, which include the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council. report that China and India will educate some 600,000 and 350,000 engineers, respectively (to the United States’ 70,000), who will work for one-fifth to one-tenth of our domestic wage. The Internet renders technology work less location-specific. Thus America must educate engineers whose competitive advantage derives from quality and innovation, not volume or price.

Technological superiority underpinned our post-Sputnik economic success. It becomes even more critical as our nation’s manufacturing economy shrinks and our knowledge economy grows. Yet many potential innovators are trapped in educational institutions that will leave them unprepared to pursue further education.

Diminishing Benefits
“A Nation at Risk” in 1983 shrilly proclaimed: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Twenty years later, linking education, the economy and national security seems less hyperbolic.

In February 2001, the U.S. Commission on National Security made five recommendations. The first concerned the security of the homeland. The second was “recapitalizing America’s strengths in science and education” because our diminishing investments in basic research and education pose “a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war that we might imagine.”

Here’s why. The Education Testing Service predicts that over the next 15 years, work requiring at least some college education will comprise most of our nation’s job growth. Thus, if graduation and college-going rates fail to increase commensurately, ETS forecasts that by the year 2020 there will be some 14 million high-skill jobs for which there will be no American workers (and a commensurate glut of high school dropouts for whom there is no work). Unaddressed, the skilled labor force shortfall and the dropout glut will result in a fall in the U.S. standard of living of as much as 40 percent. That’s a crisis.

An Untapped Resource
Though the economic concerns were prescient, the “Nation at Risk’s” criticism was overbroad. The supposedly mediocre performance of the system as a whole is actually the average of two systems at the extremes: a high-performing system largely serving the affluent and an under-resourced system serving children in poverty. While the performance gap between whites and children of color (and between children of means and those in poverty) has begun closing incrementally, it remains wide. In New York, 136 high schools have graduation rates averaging 44 percent, and they serve largely poor, black and Hispanic students.

Without the evidence orbiting overhead, urgency among policymakers and the public at large has been slow to build. Just three years ago, government lawyers in New York still argued that an 8th-grade education should suffice. That’s shortsighted. Continuing to underserve these children clearly will have disastrous consequences for our domestic economy and international competitiveness.

To address the labor force shortfall and advance our technological superiority, graduation and college-going rates among children who otherwise would not pursue higher education must increase. High performance in some high-poverty schools demonstrates that much of the disparity is driven by structures that are not, contrary to conventional wisdom, out of schools’ control altogether but rather extremely resistant to change. Thus accountability, governance, resources and poverty must be addressed simultaneously, not serially, to realize more than merely incremental progress closing achievement gaps. Further delay is disastrous: Every child that could potentially fill the labor force shortfall in 2020 is already in preschool.

Improving educational outcomes for poor children is often viewed as a cost to today’s economy, rather than an investment in cultivating the untapped intellectual resource that will propel tomorrow’s growth and security. The breadth of the challenge requires attention and treasure proportionate to that which America devotes to addressing its conventional national security threats. Unlike the Sputnik crisis, success will not be evaluated by whether a human walks on the moon but by whether all today’s preschoolers walk the stage at graduation.

Tom Rogers is executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, 7 Elk St, Albany, NY 12207. E-mail: tom@nyscoss.org. Paul Houston is AASA executive director.