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A Sputnik Moment for US Education

Last week, President Obama highlighted the need to invest more in education and technology to boost American innovation. His State of the Union remarks were framed by the ongoing competition for jobs in a global marketplace. “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” declared our President. American education faces an epic challenge – how to invest wisely to transform America’s schools.

What is it going to take? From at least a decade of investments in structural reforms, more attention needs to be paid to instruction. Large foundations have invested billions of dollars in down-sizing large schools into small learning communities, relaxing local requirements in hopes of unshackling innovation, and introducing business management approaches into public school organizations. But structure needs to be balanced with instruction.

One promising approach is building direct structural linkages between high schools and post-secondary education AND integrating instructional approaches that better prepare students academically and socially for success in college. Addressing both structure and instruction, early college high schools and middle colleges are showing initial successes in critical outcomes such as high school graduation and college enrollment. Philanthropic foundations that take seriously what research and evaluation have shown and integrate those findings into future grant-making strategies are poised to make significant contributions to improving American education.

As countries like India and China continue to rise economically and socially, America will need to invest more in education to dramatically improve low-performing schools. Some argue that home and culture, as portrayed among “tiger moms,” are more important for student success. While parenting certainly matters, what goes on in schools and in classrooms can also matter tremendously. Our country needs to grasp this moment and invest wisely in building a world-class education system.