Recently, like so many parents, I watched nervously as my daughters, hidden under impossibly overloaded backpacks, marched into their first day of school. It's a staggering act of trust. We know that a child's education is pretty much the whole ballgame. Employability, good citizenship, a life richly lived, all depend on it. And yet how much do we really know about the schools and the teachers who make it happen?
The awful challenges of our urban schools are well-known. Two of the three Bridgeport high schools fail to graduate more than half the kids who walk in the doors as freshmen. If the "Dream' part of the American Dream is to have any meaning, we'll fix that and fix it now.
But are we sure that schools in our affluent suburbs are training kids to be winners? If they're not, will it take a long line of jobs lost to stronger candidates from Seoul or Frankfurt to tip us off? Will the first red flag be the Exxon-Mobil of solar energy opening in Taipei or London?
The truth is, we just don't know. We can't even compare the ability of students from Connecticut and Colorado. We do know that for decades, we've been sliding. High school graduation rates and math and science scores have all declined relative to the rest of the world. If the "American' part of the American Dream is to have any meaning, we'll fix that and fix it now.
Much of the activity in Congress these last two years has been to try to stop the bleeding of jobs that began three years ago. We've made some progress: from job losses of 750,000 per month to eight months straight of steady but tepid private sector job creation. We must continue to get credit flowing, to stabilize the housing markets, and to return confidence to the consumer and businesses.
But I wonder if we're really doing enough to address the slow but steady decline of our schools. There's no way we can remain the pre-eminent economic and political power in the world if our kids are JV. I'm proud of the President and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, for offering money to states that are willing to change towards excellence. I'm glad they're pushing accountability and demanding results. I'm ashamed that Connecticut wasn't competitive.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss Ridgefield's schools with members of the Board of Education, principals, parents and teachers. The discussion left me optimistic that the will and the capability are there. The talk was thoughtful, fact-based and pragmatic.
As we emerge from this economic nightmare, we need to refocus on the real long run key to our prosperity: making our kids world leaders. With the kind of competence I saw in Ridgefield, with standards that might seem impossibly high, with accountability and an eye to innovation and reform, we can make sure that the next generation, under those ridiculously overstuffed backpacks, is prepared to take on the world.