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A recent Rasmussen poll tells us that American voters have little confidence in our K-12 schools. A mere 18 percent believe that most high school graduates have the skills needed for college. (Sixty-one percent believe they don't have the skills and 21 percent aren't sure).

Lacking the skills to succeed in college is a big-time problem for both the individual and society. In fact, it's problem enough to threaten a nation. High school graduates who aren't prepared for college also aren't prepared for the workplace, personal responsibility, civic duties or any of the other challenges they'll face in this increasingly fast paced, complicated, competitive, technological world.

To be fair, the perception that our schools are failing is hardly new. The annual PDK/Gallup poll tells us that in 2012 only 19 percent of the public gave our public schools a grade of A or B. Twenty years ago the number was 18 percent.

Is this lack of confidence in our K-12 schools deserved? What do the numbers tell us? And where do the solutions lie?

Let's start with simple facts about our K-12 system:

It's big: 55 million students; 130,000 schools; 3.8 million teachers; and a budget of more than $500 billion per year.

It's run by committee: policy is dictated by all levels of government; influenced by still more (unions, think tanks, foundations, and businesses); and paid for by many (federal government/8 percent, states/46 percent, localities/37 percent, and private sources/9 percent).

It's complicated: educational opportunities and attainment are not self-contained, they're closely tied to factors such as socioeconomic status, gender, culture, and race.

Given this set up, it's tough to measure success or whether schools are getting better or worse. We receive mixed messages. On the one hand our high school graduation rate has increased by 5 percent since 2006 and we're on track to have a 90 percent rate by 2020. On the other hand, our 15 year olds have a lower average math literacy rate than 17 other countries. While the public has little confidence in our schools generally, more than three quarters give a grade of A or B to the school their oldest child attends.

But there's one set of facts that trumps all the other data: that's the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), otherwise known as the nation's report card.

NAEP has four student achievement levels: 'advanced ' for 'superior performance '; 'proficient ' for 'solid academic performance; ' 'basic ' for partial mastery; below basic for below partial mastery.

We need all students to be proficient or better.

So what does NAEP tell us about our nation's eighth-graders? Brace yourself for the bad news. In math, in 2011, 18 percent of our eighth-graders were below basic, 42 percent were basic, 33 percent were proficient and 7 percent were advanced. In reading, the results are even worse: 24 percent below basic, 42 basic, 31 proficient and 3 percent advanced.

This is pretty damning evidence.

When it comes to solutions, the bad news is that there is no consensus on how to proceed. We're divided into opposing camps.

Every major issue in school reform - whether it be school closings, charter schools, vouchers, teacher hiring and firing, school control, teacher evaluations, testing, curriculum, or tracking - is hotly debated and brutally divisive.

The good news is that we know effective schools are possible. Just look at other countries to see the dream in action; to see effective education for an ever-changing world; to see students with a competitive advantage in the international race for leadership and success.

It's time for the application of some unbiased horse-sense, long identified with successful American leaders in all phases of life. A small number of bright lights from business and industry and from public and private education should dispassionately dissect the facts and render a reasoned path for tangible change, reform, and correction.

Whether we succeed or fail is a matter of commitment. The answers exist but do we have the will?

Timing is critical for the United States, the sooner the better for all its concerned citizens and entities.


Budig is past president/chancellor of three major state universities (Illinois State University, West Virginia University, and the University of Kansas). He taught at Princeton University.

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