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Look at the Den of Scoundrels

Ohanian Note: Take a look at this Standardisto's affiliations: Mr. Barrett is CEO of Intel and a board member of Achieve, Inc., a partner with the Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in the American Diploma Project.

Economists have long predicted that education will be the fuel that drives the global economy. Well, many nations have already begun to rev their engines, while America's is stalled.

Several Latin American governments now provide monthly stipends to poor parents who keep their children in school rather than sending them to work in factories or on the streets. Some 20 million people in Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua already participate in such programs. By 2006, 11.4 million families in Brazil will participate in the stipend program that's more than 45 million people, or about a quarter of the country's population.

Meanwhile, other nations are quickly becoming the world's leading providers of higher education. College enrollments may be booming here in the U.S., but China graduates twice as many students with Bachelor's degrees and six times as many engineering majors as the U.S., and India and Singapore are pumping out scientists through top-notch undergraduate programs. In 2001, India graduated almost a million more students from college than the U.S. did, including 100,000 more in the sciences and 60,000 more in engineering.

The U.S., too, has a master plan to stay competitive -- our approach has been to ratchet up standards and strengthen accountability systems, including introducing new state exit exams, to improve American education across the board. The No Child Left Behind Act targets resources to students who are most at risk of falling behind and requires that all students will be proficient in core subject areas, such as math and science, within a decade. The law monitors progress and calls for specific interventions when necessary. The law also requires that all teachers have degrees in the subjects they teach, an important step that can help ensure that more students can take more advanced courses.

Overall, the strategy makes good sense, but we still need to address a serious flaw in the program. The student who graduates and is considered proficient in math on a state test may not actually have the skills in algebra and geometry necessary to last on the job. That's because the skills and knowledge required for work get tougher every year, and states have yet to calibrate their graduation and testing requirements to the entry-level requirements for college and work. The high-school diploma may be nothing more than a broken promise to the American graduates who march out into the world with false confidence, having met every expectation demanded of them, only to find themeselves woefully underprepared.

That's the major finding of a new study just released by the American Diploma Project, which spent two years consulting with faculty members, front-line managers and high school educators, in order to gauge the levels of knowledge and skill that a high-school graduate actually needs to possess.

According to the ADP, reformers have tended to ignore the standards that really matter, namely those that students will encounter when they get to college, or when they apply for jobs. At present, even the toughest 12th-grade exit exams are geared not to college-level curriculum but to 8th or 9th-grade content. And while students may be required to pass something called "Algebra II," or to take four years of "English," states do little to ensure that those courses actually teach what the course titles imply.

Given how little we expect of our high-school graduates and how other nations are betting on education to fuel innovation, it should come as no surprise that our middle- and high-school students fare poorly on international comparisons of math and science achievement. In postsecondary education, more than half of all entering college students never graduate. Equally significant, more than 60% of employers rate high-school graduates' skills in basic English and math as fair or poor. According to one study, employer costs for remedial training in one state have reached $40 million a year.

Where Americans once viewed the diploma as a common national currency, its value has been so inflated that employers and postsecondary institutions all but ignore it in their hiring and admissions decisions today. How can we ensure that a high school degree signifies more to employers than a certificate of attendance and more to graduates than a broken promise?

First, states must take steps to raise expectations and to improve the quality of teaching and the tools teachers can marshal to help students fulfill expectations. Just as importantly, business, higher education and the federal government need to create far clearer rewards for earning a diploma. For colleges and universities, this means making decisions about admissions and placement based on high- school exit-test results. For employers, it means considering high- school achievement at hiring time. For the federal government, it means providing assistance to states to raise standards and provide incentives for students to meet them.

Our future competitiveness depends on taking bold steps to improve the quality of our K-12 system and its graduates. A common definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result.

One thing is certain. Our competitors will not wait for us to come to our senses -- they will continue to fuel the changes in education and infrastructure required to spark innovation.

Mr. Barrett is CEO of Intel and a board member of Achieve, Inc., a partner with the Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in the American Diploma Project.

— Craig R. Barrett
Education SOS
Wall Street Journal
2004-03-04


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