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America's future: Is it at risk?
Kathleen Porter-Magee's op-ed column on public education

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Date published: 5/6/2012


--An independent task force on U.S. education reform and national security brought together by the Council on Foreign Relations released a report in March that found that "the United States' failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country's ability to thrive in a global economy and maintain its leadership role."

These findings may be disconcerting, but they're not new. Politicians, policymakers, educators, parents, and even students have long understood that far too many American students leave high school without having mastered the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and on the job.

Of course, there is no shortage of reforms put forth by earnest education advocates eager to improve student achievement. Many believe that small classes are our best route to closing the achievement gap. Others feel similarly about setting clear and rigorous standards. And still others push for accountability reforms that use results from assessments to hold students, teachers, and leaders accountable.

Who is right?

There is a saying among high-performing schools that there is no 100 percent solution to helping students learn. Instead, there are a hundred 1 percent solutions that add up to big results.

The same is true in the world of education policy. Our best hope to improve student achievement is to find the right mix of policies that, taken together, have the greatest potential to drive achievement.

Fortunately, over the past two decades, we've seen tremendous education innovation and have a sense of what reforms hold the greatest promise. While we can't do everything at once, we can learn from the most successful gap-closing public, charter, and private schools and districts. Looking to the best among them, there are four policy principles that can lay the foundation for the educational improvement and innovation we need to once again lead the world:

The power to lead.

Much attention has been paid lately to teachers. This is unsurprising given that research consistently shows that an individual outstanding teacher can have a lasting impact on her students' long-term achievement--an impact that lasts well beyond the years they've worked together.

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Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.