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Is Education a National Security Risk?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The release of the report, U.S. Education Reform and National Security by a Council on Foreign Relations task force headed by Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice has sparked quite a bit of debate in the world of education (Biddle, March 23, 2012). The report claims that our failing schools are a major cause of concern for national security, and it recommends some fairly controversial measures for remedying the situation. While their findings may be accurate, their suggestions for change in the education system reveal an underlying attitude that is ultimately more harmful to education and national security than helpful.

The Findings

There certainly is a troubling trend in American society that is reflected in our education system. As Americans, we are largely disinterested in the world, and shockingly anti-intellectual regarding our own personal interests and motivations. These two trends are the major causes of the findings of the task force appointed to evaluate the security risk that our education system poses. Here is the summary of their findings:

"In international tests of literacy, math, and science, American students rank far below the world’s leaders in Finland, South Korea, and Shanghai. They spend fewer years studying a more limited range of foreign languages than students in most other wealthy countries and just 1.4 percent of them study abroad, mostly in Europe. Significant majorities of young Americans are unable to identify strategically or politically important countries, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, on a map of the world; enrollment in civics and government classes is declining."

"As a result, students are leaving school without the math and science skills needed for jobs in modern industry. They are too often unable to pass military entrance exams. The State Department and intelligence services lack sufficient linguists and analysts for critical regions. By almost every measure, U.S. schools are failing to provide the kind of education our society will need to ensure American leadership in the twenty-first century."
(U.S. Education Reform and National Security)

The report lists the following as specific areas in which national security is at risk due to a shortage of youthful raw materials being produced by our education system:

  • Hi-tech skills – American industry and the government cannot find sufficient domestic workers to hire who are qualified for hi-tech industry.
  • Military Service – 75 percent of U.S. 17 to 24 year olds are not qualified for military service because of their physical fitness, because they have criminal records, or because of inadequate education.
  • Foreign Language Ability – The U.S. State Department and intelligence agencies face a shortage of those with language abilities in critical areas such as Chinese, Dari, Korean, Russian, Turkish and Middle-Eastern languages.
    (U.S. Education Reform and National Security)

These are serious issues and the findings are corroborated by other research such as the June 2010 report, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018 by Georgetown University researchers Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl, which indicated a serious nation-wide problem presented by the shortage of workers with technical training. It is impossible to ignore these issues or to not think that an immediate solution is necessary. The task force that created the report had several.

Task Force Recommendations

The report listed three main suggestions for improving education in order to make it a national strength, rather than a security weakness:

  • Raise Expectations – States should implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to ensure that students are gaining skills and knowledge that will make them assets to national security such as science, technology, and foreign languages, as well as creative problem solving and civic awareness.
  • Better Choices – School districts should open up options for school choice so that students will not be trapped in failing schools. This would also serve to increase competition among schools and aid in further education reform.
  • National Security Readiness Audit – This would measure school success and make schools, teachers, and policymakers accountable for student learning. Essentially, this is intended to force states and schools to comply with the Common Core Standards and to punish them if they do not or cannot.
    (U.S. Education Reform and National Security)

These three recommendations are well-crafted to appeal to popular current public opinion by playing off of the Common Core movement, the debate about school choice (Matthews, May 31, 2011), and the accountability movement (NEA Today, Dec. 5, 2011), but all three illustrate a common popular push to blame specific teachers for a larger systemic failing and to "solve" the problem by helping some students to opt out of the system. All suggestions present a greater long-term national security risk than the current shortcomings.

It is obvious that there are problems with the American education system and that some of those problems are direct contributors to our national security weaknesses. Problems with student preparation in many areas are one concern, but our larger societal attitude towards education and teaching are two others that should be considered. Proposing a universal school choice program as the solution seems like a quick fix solution which will ultimately do more harm than good. Find out how this and the task force’s other suggestions are ultimately more hamrful than beneficial in tomorrow’s post.

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