President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney focused on the U.S. education system last week as a report by the Center for the Next Generation and Center for American Progress warned American children are not being adequately prepared to compete in the global workforce.
And a second report, this one from Harvard, found school vouchers, touted as a solution to urban school failures, had no overall impact on college enrollment although they did help black students more than Hispanic students.
Obama last week charged Republican budget plans would prevent 1 million students from obtaining the federal grant money they need to attend college and force public schools to lay off teachers and increase class sizes.
"The right teacher can change a child's life forever," Obama said, adding, "I'm only standing here as president because I had a bunch of great teachers."
Romney countered talk is not enough. He said the United States has to make sure schools actually are getting better.
The Next Generation/American Progress report found China and India are moving greater numbers of children through their school systems, preparing them for jobs in key industries.
The report, "The Competition that Really Matters," found by 2030 China will have 200 million college graduates -- a number that eclipses the total U.S. workforce -- and by 2020 India will be graduating four times as many students from college as the United States.
From 2000 to 2008, China graduated 1.14 million people in science, technology, engineering and math compared with 496,000 in the United States, the report said.
Another problem is the lack of early childhood education for half of U.S. children and the quality of teachers, the Next Generation/American Progress report said.
"In the United States, high school students who choose to enter undergraduate programs for education have SAT scores on average in the bottom third of all students tested, which stands in sharp contrast to nations with impressive student results," the report found.
The report also cites the racial and income gaps in literacy and the level of math education.
"U.S. 15-year olds would score first in the world in reading if only students attending the richest schools in the country took the test, and third if only white American students took the test [actual ranking is 14th out of 34]," the report said. "In math literacy the United States ranks 25th among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, with U.S. students from wealthy school districts scoring in the 50th percentile in math relative to students in other developed countries. Among the students who outperformed Americans ... were those from Shanghai, who had the highest average scores in math and reading of all 65 nations and regions undergoing the exam."
Americans are not oblivious to the situation. A survey released in conjunction with the study indicates 52 percent of U.S. voters say the next Bill Gates will come from outside the United States and 47 percent said the scientist who discovers a cure for cancer will not be an American.
A majority of those surveyed said they'd be willing to pay more taxes to fund better elementary and secondary education programs.
Matt James, president and chief executive officer of the Center for the Next Generation, said in a release the United States has little time to alter course.
"Americans triumphed at the Olympics, but when it comes to the next generation we risk not even making it onto the podium because we are failing to properly educate and prepare our youth for the jobs of the future," he said.
Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware said action needs to be taken to "prepare our children for success in a changing world. There is nothing more important than that."
And Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, said it boils down to a matter of political will.
"We need a commitment from the very top to invest in America's children and families," she said. "Our economic security and prosperity depends on children being properly educated and prepared for the global workforce. Only a renewed leadership on education as a national priority and real investments at all levels of government will enable the United States to remain economically competitive, and we owe it to the next generation to act now."
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