One might fairly wonder why the Council on Foreign Relations, of all outfits, would wade into school reform, but in fact the task force that CFR convened on this topic has made a valuable contribution.

We’re accustomed to reformers arguing that America’s international economic competitiveness hinges on a better-educated workforce; we’re used to parallel (and equally justified) assertions that our civic future and cultural vitality depend on kids learning a great deal more in school. What the CFR team has done is remind us that revitalizing our education system is also essential for the defense of the nation itself. In their words, “America’s failure to educate is affecting its national security….In the defense and aerospace industries, many executives fear this problem [dearth of adequately skilled people] will accelerate in the coming decade….Most young people do not qualify for military service….The U.S. State Department and intelligence agencies are facing critical language shortfalls in areas of strategic interest….”

They’re not exactly saying that nuclear warheads will rain onto our population centers the day after tomorrow unless our schools become more effective but they are reminding us that the intersection of national wellbeing and education has many dimensions. One may usefully recall the post-Sputnik angst that led to the National Defense Education Act and a flurry of other efforts to strengthen the U.S. education system as well as the stirring and alarmist rhetoric of A Nation at Risk—now almost three decades ago.

CFR’s thirty-member task force consisted of all manner of luminaries from education, business, government, and more. (In England, they would say it’s a roster of “the great and the good.”) Its co-chairs were veteran education reformer Joel Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Its analysis of what’s wrong in K-12 education is exemplary, wide-ranging without kitchen-sink-ism, data-filled without exhaustion. Its summary of “current policies and reform efforts” is clear-eyed, perceptive, and hits the key elements, although maybe nothing you haven’t seen before.

The most interesting and valuable parts of the report are its eleven pages of recommendations (followed by almost as many pages of “additional and dissenting views” from individual task force members, mainly Randi Weingarten and Linda Darling-Hammond).

What the CFR team has done is remind us that revitalizing our education system is also essential for the defense of the nation itself.

The recommendations come under three headings: (1) expand the Common Core and kindred efforts to span more of the essential curriculum; (2) enhance school choice and competition, with an eye to quality, too; and (3) launch what they call a “national security readiness audit.”

Let’s take these up in turn. And keep in mind as we go that the Task Force report has produced palpitations among some of our conservative pals, especially my friend Bill Evers, who sees a “federally-supported curriculum” lurking in its pages.

The curricular recommendations per se involve Uncle Sam not at all. The panel calls upon “governors to collectively create expectations for language learning and world culture and history” as well as science, technology, civics, and a slightly disguised version of twenty-first century skills (e.g. “imaginative problem solving”). Then they turn to “meaningful [ugh] assessments” that would minimize multiple choice testing and maximize “more technologically advanced assessments that simulate real-world applications of skills and knowledge.” On, then, to a complicated set of suggestions for implementation that does involve several federal incentives and entanglements, including the thought-provoking recommendation that the “Defense Policy Board, which advises the secretary of defense…should evaluate the learning standards of education in America.”

Hmm. It’s easy to understand the antennae that this one would quiver—and not just Bill Evers’s. Because the military is so top-down, so accustomed to a chain-of-command that pays scant heed to state borders or local idiosyncrasies, it’s hard to picture a group that is accustomed to defense policy adjusting to the bottom-up nature and federalist structure of K-12 education. Which is to say, entangling the Defense Policy Board in academic standards might well point toward excessive curricular control by Washington over the long haul.

On the other hand, the Task Force’s excellent advice regarding school choice should warm the hearts not only of conservatives but of everyone interested in conferring more quality educational options on kids who need them most. The panel even goes beyond the usual bounds of public education to encourage vouchers and similar means of accessing good private schools. Which is, of course, why this set of policy recommendations prompted the most dissents by individual task force members, beginning (naturally) with Ms. Weingarten.

The most original suggestion in the report is the proposed “national security readiness audit,” an ambitious plan to gather, analyze, and release comprehensive school-level data in a single national report (including international comparisons) that is intended to prod educators to use such data, to trigger accountability-style interventions, and to keep the public better informed about the performance of U.S. schools. The task force “believes that a targeted, annual campaign, led by the Department of Education in collaboration with the U.S. states, the Departments of Defense and State and the intelligence agencies, could have this impact.”

Well, maybe. Or maybe it would just yield the sort of brief-flurry-of-interest-followed-by-big-yawn that we associated with annual reports by the National Education Goals Panel during the 1990’s. In reality, the annual Condition of Education report from NCES already contains much of the relevant information. It’s just that nobody says much about it or does much with it. (C’mon, Arne Duncan and Leon Panetta and James Clapper [director of national intelligence], show what you can do with data!)

On balance, this is a solid, imaginative, well-written report from smart, knowledgeable folks gathered under an unexpected umbrella, and a timely, worthy reminder that education goes well beyond domestic policy. It’s certainly no cause for alarm on the right. Indeed, the task force’s own dissenting members signal the heartburn it creates on the left side of the education establishment.

Independent Task Force report on U.S. Education Reform and National Security, U.S. Education Reform and National Security, (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, March 2012).

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