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What to do when school gets an F
By Dave McIntyre, PhD

National Security concerns itself with the elements of national power (diplomatic, informational, intelligence, military, economic, and domestic) to secure and advance national interests overseas. Homeland Security focuses more narrowly on public safety and civil security at home, as well as securing and advancing domestic structures that create national power. Both components of American security derive much of their strength from an educated citizenry and workforce.

According to a new report by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), American education is failing to produce properly educated graduates in sufficient numbers to sustain and expand our national power. This failure endangers the nation at home and abroad. Our schools are making an "F." What are we to do?

Until approximately 150 years ago, the elements of national power were somewhat immutable. Each state had its population base, agricultural potential, and natural resources, and that was pretty much that. The primary ways to amass new power were through military professionalism or conquest.

The industrial revolution changed all of that as entities were able to create new national power through better-educated citizens. America excelled at this competition largely because it excelled at mass education. The victory in World War II, the subsequent expansion to a global power, and even the conquest of space bespoke an America capable of turning out planners, builders, engineers, and managers in sufficient numbers to dominate the world.

But the basis for national power in the 21st century is different, and so is the social role education plays in our national life. New skills are demanded of our workers, new tasks are demanded of our teachers, new elements of our society are fully incorporated into our classrooms, and new competitors press us from all sides. Our education system is not keeping up with the changes. Recently the CFR sponsored an Independent Task Force to create a report titled U.S. Education Reform and National Security. Chaired by Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State, and Joel Klein, former head of New York City public schools, the report chronicled a dismal list of negative indicators.

  • Compared to other students in industrialized countries, our children rank 14th in reading, 25th in math, and 17th in science.
  • More than 25% fail to graduate high school in four years. That number approaches 40% for minorities.
  • Among those going to college, 43% need remedial courses when they arrive.

The list goes on.
Based on my personal experiences, these observations are right on target, and they demonstrate a threat to homeland security as well. In the past decade, I have taught hundreds of students in dozens of graduate courses at multiple universities, presented at scores of conferences with representatives from hundreds of schools, and interacted with homeland security leaders at every level—from the secretary's office in DHS to fire and police responders on the street. The common theme from all these experiences, heard again at the FEMA (EMI) Higher Education Conference last May and at the Center for Homeland Security (Naval Postgrad School) academic workshop last August, is "Our students—mostly adult learners—simply cannot read, write, do the math, and handle the science and technology to take full benefit from our classes." As a police chief told me recently, "The biggest problem I have with new officers is that they cannot write a report well enough for it to stand up in court."

We have a major problem with national and homeland security implications.

Dominated by experts in education, the Task Force recommends changes in three broad policy areas:

  • Raise expectations and improve assessments in national security related fields (science, technology, engineering, math, and foreign languages) by encouraging states to expand Common Core Standards (an ongoing Department of Education effort).
  • Provide students (and parents) with new choices in education and educational institutions (such as vouchers and charter schools).
  • Conduct a "national security readiness audit" to assess student learning, then use the results to raise public awareness of the problems.

This is a detailed and objective report, and these recommendations deserve to be taken seriously. But from a business perspective—and especially from the perspective of a quality manager—several more points deserve discussion as well.

First, who are the customers and what do they want? Reports by education experts always seem to ask other education experts about the desired outcomes. How about asking private employers and government supervisors what skills they want to see taught and to what levels? And what about asking the taxpayers who pay the bills?

Second, something is wrong with our production system. Good raw material comes in, and twelve to eighteen years later, much of our product batch fails to conform to expectations. Better infrastructure and more testing is not necessarily the answer. Quality Systems Management would demand that we examine the system through which the students pass instead of focusing entirely on inputs (resources), outputs (student readiness), and the potential outsourcing of production (private schools).

Third, when your experts call for budget increases while the quality of the product steadily declines, you need a different set of experts. Frequently in failing enterprises, the "experts" have a vested interest in preventing essential change. Maybe it is time to put someone besides career educators on the job.

Fourth, when there is a problem in a production system, the people on the production line usually know why—they just have no incentive to speak the truth. Yes, sometimes their priority is to protect their own jobs. But faced with hard data and the clear failure of the system, the people closest to the problem frequently have useful input if they think they will be heard.

The bottom line is that something is badly wrong with our educational system, and the failure threatens our national interests at home and abroad. Maybe that system could benefit from applying the skills and techniques already used to promote quality in the successful enterprises that will employ our students when they graduate.

About the Author

Dave McIntyre, PhD is Vice President for Homeland Security Programs at the National Graduate School, and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Homeland Security Institute. He is author of the new novel CENTERLINE, about the homecoming of wounded warriors, and co-editor with Bill Hancock of the book Business Continuity and Homeland Security, released by Edward Elgar Publishers.

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