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Commentary: Education lost in hubbub of campaigning

  • Story Highlights
  • McCartney: Issue of education is virtually absent from candidates' platforms
  • America's global ranking on math and science tests, 25th and 21st respectively
  • Public education serves as the very foundation of our democracy
  • McCartney: Scientific research needed to find answers to improve faltering system
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By Kathleen McCartney
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Kathleen McCartney is the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development. She is a developmental psychologist whose research informs theoretical questions on early experience and development as well as policy questions on child care, early childhood education, poverty and parenting.

All must share the blame for the current state of education in America, says Kathleen McCartney, a dean at Harvard.

(CNN) -- As we enter the final months of the longest presidential campaign in American history, it seems clear that the issue of the education of our nation's children is virtually absent from John McCain and Barack Obama's rhetoric.

During the primary season, throughout the stump speeches, the daily press opportunities and the countless television and print ads, I have wondered about the lack of attention to education. National polls reflect Americans' priorities: the war, the economy and escalating energy costs. There is no question that these are critical issues.

But so, too, is public education, a system that serves as the very foundation of our democracy. In its present state, it is unclear how public education will shape today's children into tomorrow's workers -- with the skills, knowledge and capacity to solve tomorrow's problems.

Are we concerned enough about the next generation to invest today's scarce resources in their success?

In my role, I am frequently called upon to speak about the state of U.S. education. I typically frame the problems by citing some well-known statistics, such as low high school graduation rates for large cities like Washington, where only 58 percent of students graduate in four years, or New York, where the number is 45 percent.

Then there is America's disappointing international ranking on math and science tests, 25th and 21st respectively. In the Education Olympics, we're nowhere near the medal stand.

Meanwhile, our international peers from Finland to Singapore have made significant strides, gaining ground where we have lost it. Somehow, such concerns -- and the proposed policies to address them -- have eluded the campaign platforms. What issues are important for you in Election 2008?

The people I speak with on both sides of the political aisle blame parents, teachers, school boards, school districts or schools of education. But in truth, the blame must be shared by all.

Public education has some powerful allies, including the Gates and Broad foundations. They have banded together to support ED in '08, a nonpartisan awareness campaign that seeks to inform the public about the critical need to improve U.S. education. But this campaign has met with only limited success.

If we, the people, decide we are serious about supporting our public education system, what might we do?

We need to recognize that there isn't a single solution, such as creating small schools or charter schools. We need to rely on good data and good judgment about what works. And we need to have the patience to support sustained efforts.

Here are three examples of worthwhile initiatives.

We know that early childhood education sets the stage for school success, especially for children living in poverty. We know that an extended day in school provides students with more time to learn, a lesson culled from other countries like China and India. And we know that children learn more when they are taught by qualified teachers. Public pre-kindergarten, longer school days and teacher work force development all make good sense. We must invest in good practice.

Still, we do not know everything, and serious investment in education will be required to conduct scientific research to get more of the answers we need.

Consider that the annual budget for the Institute for Education Sciences is $594 million, a small fraction of the $28 billion allocated in 2008 for the National Institutes of Health. It is little wonder that medical breakthroughs have outpaced advances in education. We must invest in rigorous research.

I know the power of education because I've lived it. Unlike my parents, who struggled to make ends meet, I profited from good public schools and access to higher education through financial aid and fellowships.

Sadly, not all American children are as fortunate as I was.

Much is a stake regarding the decisions we make for all our children, and it is nothing less than our democratic way of life. If we decide that we want to invest in education, the results for the country will be great: global competitiveness, scientific discoveries and productive citizens.

We, the people, must acknowledge our responsibility in driving the issues of this election cycle. And then needed presidential leadership will follow.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

All About EducationU.S. Presidential ElectionJohn McCainBarack Obama

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