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WHERE AMERICA STANDS: Report Finds that the U.S. Educational System Fails to Meet the Needs of a Globally Competitive Economy

“Despite decades of focus on this issue and progress in some areas, the U.S. educational system still fails to meet the needs of a globally competitive economy on many levels.”

Since 1986, the United States has nearly doubled its Gross Domestic Product and today remains the world’s largest economy, according to Competitiveness Index: Where America Stands, a new report from the Council on Competitiveness that includes a special section on education. However, while America has among the highest levels of productivity and standard of living, the report identifies adequately educating its workforce as a serious area of concern.

“In an economy where technical change is one of the major drivers of growth, and where lower-wage workers in emerging markets are increasingly able to compete directly for work that once could be done only in America, the demand for more skills—higher educational attainment and higher-order competencies in communication and expert thinking—has risen rapidly,” the report reads. “Despite decades of focus on this issue and progress in some areas, the U.S. educational system still fails to meet the needs of a globally competitive economy on many levels.”

Among areas of progress, the report identifies America’s educational attainment (in terms of average years of formal education) as one of the highest in the world. It notes that the percentage of Americans with a high school diploma has doubled and that the percentage with a college degree has tripled since 1960. However, although Americans are among the world leaders in educational attainment, other countries have surpassed the United States in high school and college graduation rates. Currently, the United States ranks 17th in high school graduation rates and 14th in college graduation rates, according to the report. It credits the country’s current lead in educational attainment to the legacy of stronger access to education during the “baby boom” years.

Competitiveness Index also points out that “significant numbers” of Americans—particularly those from racial and ethnic minorities—are not being adequately served by our high schools. It adds that many Americans leave high school unprepared for college and “unsuitable” for many kinds of employment. The report is particularly concerned with the large skills gap between some racial and ethnic groups and their white classmates. It argues that a failure to address these gaps could mean declining levels of educational attainment across the entire workforce as minorities come to make up a larger percentage of the population and workforce and as baby boomers leave the workforce.

“In 1980, the U.S. workforce was 82 percent white; by 2020, it will be just 63 percent white,” the report reads. “Over these forty years, the share of minorities will double to 37 percent, while the share of Hispanics will triple to 17 percent. If the performance gap between Hispanics, African Americans, and whites persists, the number of Americans ages 26 to 64 who do not have a high school degree could soar.”

The report laments the poor performance by U.S. students on international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). However, it notes that some American students, schools, and school systems – those that are among the best performing in the United States – are equal to their international peers, and sees this as a hopeful indicator. For example, eighth graders in high-achieving states have scores in mathematics that are equal to those in the highest-achieving foreign countries. In addition, American students who passed the AP calculus and physics exams score well above the international average. As a whole, however, twelfth-graders perform poorly, as demonstrated in their last-place performance in math and next-to-last performance in physics.

Because of the increasingly competitive global environment, what is expected of employees and the skills they need for the workplace have changed. Whereas 80 percent of the jobs in 1950 were classified as “unskilled,” today an estimated 85 percent of jobs are considered “skilled,” meaning that some education or training beyond high school is required. In addition, whereas more than half of all factory workers were high school dropouts in 1973, now the percentage without a high school diploma is less than 20 percent, and more than one third have some college education.

The report concludes its spotlight on the American education system with a reference to the 1983 report, A Nation At Risk, which alerted Americans to the fact that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” This new report warns that the problems laid out in A Nation At Risk are “even more true today than 20 years ago. …History is not kind to idlers… We live among determined, well-educated and strongly motivated competitors… America’s position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer.”

More information on the report is available at

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