Obama is right to set real federal education standards

Friday - 5/21/2010, 12:52pm EDT

President Obama announced recently his plan to change the federal government's role in education.

The most important change he wants is to establish real federal standards by which student progress can be measured.

This sounds simple, but education has always been the province of states and local school districts. There is a deep suspicion of the federal government, especially among today's fevered anti-government, very conservative and libertarian circles.

Mr. Obama will face a block of resistance. He should persevere. Former President Bush didn't back off inserting the federal government into public schools with the No Child Left Behind law. That law, however, has not been what Mr. Bush expected nor has it lived up to its title.

Our public schools have left children behind and continue to do so. There is a caveat. Most schools do a good job of educating their pupils, and public education remains the brightest hope for many children seeking a better life.

But there is a sizeable percentage of students who are not making progress. They have become a lump of uneducable people. This is a time when states, the nation, and the world are becoming more and more demanding for smart, teachable employees.

There are reports of foreign auto companies choosing Canada over Southern states to locate new plants partly because the companies would have to spend too much time and money trying to prepare the American workers to operate sophisticated machines.

Nationally, about 30 percent of our students do not graduate from high school. Studies show that many of these students do return to school or attain enough knowledge to pass the test for a GED (general education degree).

That still leaves the country with a core of students who have failed to get a decent education. Some cannot read or read poorly. They don't have computational skills, and even a cash register, much less a computer system, can be a serious challenge.

These children are the people who fall behind in the adult world. They are the hardest to employ and as the job market loses its low-skill manufacturing jobs to cheaper labor overseas, these weak students will have an even harder time getting a good or bad job.

Free marketers say that such poor performers and dropouts have made their beds and must now sleep in them. More personal effort, indeed, should be expected from the students. Many can do the work and millions of their peers have done it despite terrible hardships.

If we don't help them, society as a whole will become weighted down with unproductive citizens.

Many states have a vigorous policy of recruiting and helping "knowledge industries." That policy is in serious jeopardy when a fifth to a third of the workforce cannot read an operation manual for a high-tech piece of equipment and certainly cannot build such a machine.

Mr. Obama's federal standards won't turn these students into A+ pupils. But the standards will give us an accurate picture of where we stand.