Here’s an extract of Duncan’s conclusions in an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs:
But the federal government cannot revitalize U.S. education and the United States’ economic competitiveness alone. More than 90 percent of spending for primary and secondary school education typically comes from state and local governments. They, along with businesses, higher-education institutions, and philanthropists, must all do their part to prepare U.S. students to compete in the knowledge economy. State policies and institutional practices in higher education are especially ripe for reform. Postsecondary institutions can no longer blame low graduation rates of minority students solely on socioeconomic factors when graduation rates for similar cohorts of minority students vary widely among institutions. For example, black first-year students at community colleges in Maryland are twice as likely as those in Louisiana to earn an associate’s degree within three years. Demography is not destiny.
More than anything, strengthening the United States’ economic competitiveness will require a sea change in the prevailing mindset among the politicians and voters who treat international competition exclusively as a threat. Economic competition should be a healthy inducement to learn from and collaborate with other nations. One of PISA’s most encouraging lessons is that, over time, other nations have significantly narrowed achievement gaps and boosted educational achievement nationwide. Two generations ago, South Korea had the economic output of Afghanistan today and, if PISA had existed, would have ranked 24th in educational attainment among the OECD nations. Today, South Korea has the highest college attainment rate in the world among young adults.
In truth, the United States has much to learn from foreign competitors. Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, has noted that other developed nations are more successful at recruiting talented teachers, providing first-rate teaching preparation and professional development, and honoring the teaching profession. Unlike in the United States, in South Korea teachers come from the top ten percent of graduates — and those who teach are viewed as making an important contribution to building their nation.
Learning from high-achieving countries is a two-way street. Chinese officials, frustrated with the relative lack of Nobel Prizes and patents obtained by Chinese, are seeking to emulate the creativity and innovation of U.S. institutions of higher education. The American tradition of free inquiry and peer-reviewed research is itself a winning advertisement overseas for American education and a tool for spreading democracy. As Tony Wagner, an education professor, points out in The Global Achievement Gap, there is a happy “convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our democracy safe and vibrant.” Asking good questions, solving problems, seeking to understand cultural differences — all these civic traits are prized by employers, too.
The economic future of the United States rests not only on its ability to strengthen its education system but also on citizens in other states raising their living standards. Thinking of the future as a contest among states vying to get larger pieces of a finite economic pie for themselves is a recipe for protectionism and global strife. Instead, Americans must realize that expanding educational attainment everywhere is the best way to grow the pie for all. The virtuous cycle, not the vicious cycle, is the pathway to prosperity.