According to a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force, failures and weaknesses in the American public education system pose a serious national security threat.
In the report “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” 31 experts from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors identified five distinct threats to Americans’ economic, physical, and psychological well-being. They warn that ill-prepared youth compromise America’s economic growth and competitiveness, physical safety, intellectual property, global and civic awareness, and national unity and cohesion.
At first glance, it might be difficult to imagine that inferior schools could undermine national security. But consider a number of sobering facts from the report.
Two-thirds of U.S. life science and aerospace firms report that they cannot find a sufficient number of qualified workers. Moreover, studies indicate that as many as 75 percent of young adults do not have the physical, intellectual, or behavioral qualifications to qualify for military service.
Federal diplomatic and intelligence agencies acknowledge a critical shortage of individuals who can speak “strategically important languages” such as Chinese, Dari, Korean, Russian, and Turkish. Even fewer possess the basic skills and knowledge needed to work in the midst of foreign customs and cultures.
In sum, mounting weaknesses in technological research and development, military recruitment, and diplomatic and intelligence efforts will make all Americans increasingly susceptible to harm.
Compared to our worldwide economic competitors, the United States produces relatively few high school graduates proficient in math and science. Those deficiencies are part of a much larger problem. According to the task force, intelligence agencies, the military, and defense industry employers report that an increasing number of young employees also lack basic reading comprehension, writing, and critical thinking skills. The cumulative effect of these failings on the intelligence community is worrisome, not to mention costly. They point out that national security agencies must dedicate a growing portion of a shrinking defense budget to remedial training.
In addition to shortcomings in reading and math, the task force identifies insufficient attention to global and civic literacy, including a “sense of global awareness” and “a strong understanding of their nation’s democratic values and practices.” The participants worry that our schools fragment our nation by failing to develop citizens who understand and appreciate American history, traditions, values, and institutions.
Additionally, they observe that many young adults fail to grasp how American ideals interact and clash with cultural traditions and economies throughout the world. This kind of knowledge is essential for a generation that must lead a nation in an interconnected world.
The Council on Foreign Relations Task Force offers three recommendations. First, it argues that public schools must “implement educational expectations and assessments in subjects vital to protecting national security.” The task force is optimistic that new Common Core State Standards in English and math, which North Carolina adopted in 2010, will lead to higher expectations and better tests.
I do not believe that these quasi-federal standards are the answer. While researchers disagree about the English standards’ quality, there is a growing consensus that Common Core math standards are abysmal. Moreover, a University of Pennsylvania team recently concluded that the proposed common standards are no better, and likely worse, than academic standards created by state education agencies.
I am much more optimistic about the second recommendation: implementing so-called “structural changes” in our schools. Report authors cite structural changes including parental school choice and an equitable distribution of educational resources. North Carolina does a satisfactory job of allocating resources but must expand opportunities for parents to choose the schools that best meet their children’s needs.
Finally, the Task Force proposes a “national security readiness audit” to maintain accountability and increase awareness of the importance of education in national security matters. An annual audit is a sensible idea, particularly if it identifies various weaknesses and strengths in each state’s public schools. In this way, we can take steps to ensure all North Carolina public school graduates have the foundational skills and knowledge required to defend our nation from harm.
Dr. Terry Stoops is director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.