For decades, political and business leaders have demanded education reform because bad schools were putting our nation “at risk” of losing its economic advantage. Many years, billions of dollars, and hundreds of reform strategies later, the schools survive largely untouched while America enjoys one of its greatest periods of prosperity in history. To some this is an enigma: how can we lead the world economically while trailing the world educationally? How will our economy fare when generations of poorly educated students comprise its workforce? Contrary to conventional wisdom, our schools do not exist just to train tomorrow’s workforce. They exist, primarily, to produce a well-educated citizenry. Education in a democracy has many dimensions-civic, intellectual, economic, and moral, to name a few. As instructors teach literature, algebra, history, and physics, on a deeper level their schools are recreating American society. When they falter, our cultural legacy-even our civilization-is what is truly “at risk.” That is why school success and pupil achievement matter-not just for the gross domestic product.

Americans today are rightly concerned about cultural decay-the erosion of traditional values, loss of our national identity, and balkanization of our communities. This is a real, heartfelt desire to disentangle “We the People” from “We the Consumers” and “We the Employers.” America is defined by far more than its economic might and military muscle. It stands for high principles and the legacy of the Enlightenment. Liberty, reason, equality, justice-these ideals are not innate in humans. They must be taught and cultivated. This solemn duty falls squarely on the shoulders of families and schools.

But the schools largely reject this civic mission. Afraid even to ask what it means to be an American, schools instead harp on vague concepts such as self-esteem and diversity. Valuing individual differences and talents is surely important, but so is understanding what binds us together. Schools must concern themselves with the unum as much as with the pluribus.

Furthermore, educators complain that it is virtually impossible to make some kids study things that do not seem immediately relevant to their adolescent lives-such as algebra and Aristotle. It is so much easier, many argue, to let kids pursue their own interests and study what they like. No bitter pills to swallow, no unhappy campers. Anyway, what really matters is “learning how to learn.” And feeling good about it.

That certainly makes it easier for the teachers, and is all well and good until those high school graduates enter the voting booth knowing precious little about American history and the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. It is fine until the American people debate a war in the Persian Gulf without knowing where that is-not to mention why it’s important. It is harmless until conversations about global warming degenerate into empty rhetoric and shallow posturing because so few people possess the tools to comprehend the science or even ask the right questions.

The situation is little better in higher education. Universities, having shed their core curriculum and sloughed off any pretense to moral leadership, not to mention stewardship of souls, have degenerated from knowledge centers into training centers. As students have flocked to financially attractive fields, disciplines such as literature, history, and philosophy have suffered greatly. As our schools and universities adopt a single-minded, utilitarian rationale for the education they provide, a degree today has become less an affirmation of knowledge than a resumé-booster. Education is trivialized when it is reduced to a venue for vocational marketability.

Achievement tests measure more than future workplace skills. They also gauge whether our schools are fulfilling their mission to produce well-prepared citizens. Certainly knowledge is not all it takes to be a contributing citizen, but it is a prerequisite. Dismal test scores indicate that this basic democratic need is not being met. Fortunately, we can reverse this trend. The first step is to set high academic standards. Standards spell out what students are expected to know and be able to do by certain points in their schooling. According to recently released and hard-nosed appraisals, most state standards are poor. They lack clarity, content, and rigor. Well-constructed standards clarify priorities and expectations. They specify what is essential for all citizens to know, no matter where they come from or what occupations they will choose. Should all future citizens understand the Constitution? The Bill of Rights? The 14th Amendment? Romeo and Juliet? The Pythagorean Theorem? Newton’s Laws of Physics? Standards answer these questions.

We must develop world-class standards and then hold students and schools accountable for reaching them. Without incentives and real consequences, we would be naive to expect changes in behavior and performance. We have to make knowledge count. High school seniors should have to know certain things to obtain a diploma. Most other democracies have challenging high school exit exams because they understand this. Low test scores are a chronic, not acute, problem. Our standard of living will not plummet tomorrow if today’s students don’t learn more math, science, literature, and history. Like a high cholesterol count, low test scores indicate a general illness and foreshadow problems down the road. Our economy might remain strong for a while regardless of what our educational system produces, but our body politic will surely sicken as more and more of our citizens know less and less. We must start treatment today to prevent illness tomorrow.

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