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Renewing America Watch: Failing the Next-Gen Workforce

by Toni Johnson
March 21, 2012

A group of students in Dearborn, Michigan October 25, 2005. (Rebecca Cook/Courtesy Reuters)


Education has cropped up as an economic sleeper issue for U.S. voters with a debate ensuing about the types of degrees college graduates need to have in the current economy as well as the availability of apprenticeship/training programs necessary to meet the needs of U.S. employers.

Over at our sister project Renewing America, CFR’s Edward Alden discusses a new CFR Task Force report on education released earlier this week:

It makes a compelling case that the failure of the United States to maintain its leadership in education ultimately threatens not just U.S. prosperity but its national security. It concludes that too many of our K-12 schools are simply failing to give students the basic preparation they need to engage in a modern, technologically sophisticated economy.

There are a number of striking illustrations in the report, but perhaps the most telling are three charts that look at the percentage of Americans attaining a college degree, broken down by age group. Among those aged 55 to 64, some 40 percent have a college degree, which is tied for the highest in the world along with Canada. Among those aged 45 to 54, the college completion level is also 40 percent, in 3rd behind Canada and Japan. Among Americans aged 25 to 34, the college completion rate remains just above 40 percent. But that now puts the United States in 10th place, behind such countries as Korea, New Zealand and Australia.

The story is not so much one of the United States falling back, but of standing still while others move ahead. The education advantage has clearly been lost, as is demonstrated by the more familiar statistics on K-12 education, which show American students in the middle or lower ranges among developed countries in reading, math and science achievement.

On the blog The Water’s Edge, Anya Schmemann, who directs CFR’s Task Force Program, explained some of the stark findings of the education task force, including that many students graduating from U.S. public schools are unprepared to succeed in college or the workforce:

—    They are not ready academically. Almost a third of college freshmen require remedial education. ACT, Inc. found that only 24 percent of high school graduates (and just four percent of African-American graduates) who took the ACT in 2010 were ready for college-level classes.

—    They are not ready for work. A recent survey of American employers rated 81 percent of high school graduates “deficient” in written communications, and many employers are already complaining that despite sustained unemployment, they are not able to find qualified young Americans to hire.

—    They are not ready for military service. In a recent report, a coalition of retired generals noted that 75 percent of American young people could not join the military because they were either physically unfit, had criminal records, or had failed to graduate from high school. Even students who did graduate from high school are not all academically fit to serve.

For more information read:
CFR’s Task Force Report on Education

Interview with Task Force co-chair Joel Klein


  • Posted by Jackie

    Not surprising but very troublesome.

    The business of education has surpassed the effort to educate holistically. Testing companies and assessment techniques created by troves of “experts” who dehumanize the complexity of human intellect and render it measurable in mathematical formulas threaten to reduce humans to automated, nonthinking beings. Education should encourage, instill and nurture curiosity. Education should not have rigid boundaries between disciplines but identify the ways in which learning happens broadly.

    Ramping up science, math and reading for the purpose of capturing sectionalized intellect on tests has proven woefully inadequate in educating our children. These three fields have been advanced to the exclusion of physical education, foreign langue training, arts, and “free time.” Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice know the value of foreign language and music (at least!) — enrich the educational system with those things you already know help students long-term. Stop looking to capture immediate gains on standardized tests and assessment metrics which force teachers to teach to the test in order to save their jobs and feed their families. Measure gains over time, every 10 years sounds about right. This, however, would require excellence in the classroom, passionate teachers who were not afraid of losing their jobs and who were earning a respectable living wage (one consistent with the value we say we place on education), and giving kids more than rigid academics and touting these as the only way to capture educational advancement.


  • Posted by Training Expert

    I must agree that the failure of the United States to maintain its leadership in education ultimately threatens not just U.S. prosperity and our way of life as we know it.