In his State of the Union Address last week, President Obama laid out his vision for the future of the American economy. Not surprisingly, one of the first topics he touched upon was education. To quote the president, “Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree.” But you shouldn’t need the president’s words to convince you of that; anyone who pays attention to the news knows that producers and manufacturers have moved jobs that require less skill and education overseas, and the new positions that have sprung up in our country require capable, skilled and educated people. We need a workforce that can not only use the technology of the 21st century, but can adapt it, modify it and enhance it to be more productive. Mr. Obama drove the point home again, “Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100.” Put simply, if Americans want good jobs here in America, they’re going to need to be educated and educated well. At the uppermost level, that isn’t a problem. Again, the president put it best, “We are home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study more than any other place on Earth.” The problem then is making sure that American students coming out of American schools are prepared for the rigors of those top-notch universities. If we fail to educate students early and prepare them for college, we’re not only doing them a disservice, we’re doing our nation a disservice. Education should be a national priority.
I’m proud to say that President Obama made some of the points I’ve made in the past about teaching and teachers. Our nation needs to respect teachers more; we need to treat teachers better; we need to pay them more. But there is more to it than that. Since the release in early December of international test scores that showed other nations passing the United States on standardized testing in math and science, much has been made of the second coming of Sputnik, the moment that would galvanize the nation behind lofty national ambitions with a special emphasis on education. President Obama mentioned Sputnik in the speech, and I, like many writers, have used the analogy in the hopes that maybe the reality of our slip in the international rankings will refocus the country. But perhaps Sputnik is a poor analogy. There is no visible orb moving through the night sky, nothing for Americans to look up at in awe and fear. But there are dilapidated and boarded up factories. There are fewer and fewer low-skill jobs. Most importantly, there is still the potential of becoming the world’s most creative and innovative society. There is still an environment that fosters creativity through competition. There is a need and a demand for educated and capable workers who can adapt quickly, who can be flexible and innovative, and who can enhance workplaces with their knowledge and talents. We may need fewer people in steel mills, but we need more in office buildings. As we begin to come out of the worst economic recession in nearly a century, our country will only begin to create more of these types of jobs and the demand for educated workers will grow further.
Education must become a national priority. It must be a topic addressed with the same frequency, concern and passion as issues like tax cuts, the budget deficit and the war in Afghanistan. When American voters go to the polls they should consider how their candidates stand on matters of educational policy as well as fiscal policy. There are a whole host of ideas spanning the political spectrum for how to best revamp our educational system. The debate on how to affect change can and should be an instrumental part of determining what works and what does not. But the debate should be public and it should take on increased importance. America still innovates and creates, but if America cannot educate, we will soon find that many of the high-skill, high-paying jobs we find within our borders will take the same route as the low-skill, low-paying jobs already have, the path out of America. Education is important for its own sake, but an uneducated populace dooms Americans and the country to a dark future. We would do well to treat the topic with utmost urgency and resolve. It is in everybody’s best interest to make education our national priority.