Education is the key to our nation’s prosperity

As the leader of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, I receive many letters from students and educators in other countries, soliciting advice on reforming systems they do not feel are teaching the critical thinking, leadership or questioning skills that drive innovation. Yet in international rankings, our students fall almost last in math and science compared to theirs. China, for example, graduates four times as many engineers as the United States, and our students are measurably less excited about entering math and science fields.[i]

Imagine what would happen if, for the first time in our history, we collectively decided to couple American creativity, innovation and leadership with the commonsense approaches to education that other countries are using now to surpass us: national standards, rigorous competition and a relentless focus on achievement.

I have always found it strange that education is rarely the top issue of the day. Especially when facing economic instability, it is where all eyes should be. Education is the key to stable economic growth, national security, competitive business and long-term prosperity. 

So far it has not been enough to cite the discouraging statistics about our math and science rankings, or the jobs we are losing as a result. Right now — in the middle of economic crisis, and with a rising need for stability and innovation in all fields — is the perfect time to put education on the top of every agenda in Washington. 

So why isn’t it the topic of every Sunday talk show and roundtable that covers Washington?

I believe it is because it takes an enormous amount of political courage to dig into this issue beyond the feel-good words that make political platforms sound warm but have not yet resulted in systems worthy of the United States. Because it is a long-term strategy, making education our top priority takes a unique kind of leadership and political stamina, both of which are growing among local and federal leaders.

For the first time I remember, a Democratic administration is embracing ideas in education that have traditionally been Republican: competition, choice and increased accountability in charter schools, and merit pay for teachers and principals. Debates will soon begin on the reauthorization of and possible revisions to No Child Left Behind, and the decisions legislators make will determine our children’s ability to lead when we relinquish our roles to them in a few short years. We are poised for unprecedented progress as Congress considers a federal budget that increases education spending but relies on competition rather than entitlement.

The administration has promised only to direct Race to the Top funds to districts using American innovation to turn around failing schools, assess and reward teachers, create smarter data systems to align instruction to results — all things we began in Washington even before the competition was announced, and all things that can have greater measurable impact in a smaller district such as D.C. 

Even more encouraging is that these reforms and others are yielding progress. In math, in 2009 our students outpaced all other urban districts measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress[ii]. When compared to states, D.C. led the country in growth, with eighth-graders growing at three times the national average and our fourth-graders the only group in the country to see gains in every subgroup, from African American students to students on free and reduced lunch.

In Washington, D.C., Race to the Top dollars would strengthen teacher pipelines while emphasizing math and science teachers, and support a bold new teacher assessment that shifts the focus from inputs to outputs based on student achievement — another first in D.C.

They would also support Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) schools as part of our plan to transform secondary schools. In addition to emphasizing these content areas within a full curriculum, STEM schools strengthen the skills that my international e-mailers seek to build: problem-solving, leadership, teamwork, and innovation. STEM schools also prioritize keeping teachers up to date on new developments in their ever-advancing fields. 

The federal government has a significant leadership and support role to play in education reform, and from what I see in D.C., we need this increased support now more than ever. 

As debates over the economy and healthcare dominate the airwaves, education is one field in which leaders can seize bipartisan courage to —for the first time in our history — educate all children in the nation according to their rights and the country’s needs.

In the end, the legacies with the longest shelf lives will belong to the courageous leaders who, with their voices, votes, political platforms and actions, are able to put the next generation ahead of the next news cycle and election. As courageous Republicans, Democrats and independents put education first, we can edge politics out of a ring that has knocked children out of their own bright futures for decades. 

Rhee is chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools.

[i] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics and Tapping America’s Potential, 

[ii] Trial Urban District Assessment, 2009,