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What Schools Can Expect As U.S. Slips in Competitiveness

It had to happen sooner or later. The World Economic Forum recently ranked the U.S. No. 5 in economic competitiveness. Although the Geneva-based organization based its decision specifically on huge deficits and declining faith in government, it won't be long before public schools are implicated.

It has to be that way because frustration and anger can be discharged only by means of a lightning rod, and schools fit the need to a tee. As Clinton E. Boutwell wrote in Shell Game (Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1997), "America's corporate elite charged that their incompetence was not responsible for the loss of America's competitive advantage. The 'real' reason was that the United States did not have a highly educated, world-class workforce. The schools were causing this economic decline, they claimed."

I don't deny that the quality of schools in this country is a factor in a robust economy, but I think their impact is exaggerated. As Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein wrote, "the honesty of our capital markets, the accountability of our corporations, our fiscal-policy and currency management, our national investment in R&D and infrastructure, and the fair-play of the trading system ..." play far greater roles ("Schools as Scapegoats," The American Prospect, Oct. 12, 2007). Readers who disagree with this view need to read a scathing essay about events just unfolding on Wall Street ("Full-Blown Civil War Erupts on Wall Street," OpEd News.com, Sept. 3).

What is likely to come out of all this turmoil is the adoption of the business model to schools. Testing will be increased, with penalties for schools that don't meet their quotas. Teachers unions will be further weakened so that principals can hire and fire at will. Teachers with STEM degrees will be paid a hefty premium. The changes will be fought hammer and tongs, but unfortunately they will ultimately prevail. The beginning of the transformation of public schools in several states is already underway, but it will pick up momentum as fear spreads about the economic future of the country.

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