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Enhancing U.S. Education and Competitiveness

During his trip to Asia last November, U.S. President Barack Obama sat down to a working lunch with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul. In the space of little more than a generation, South Korea has developed one of the world's best-educated work forces and fastest-growing economies -- and President Obama was curious about the South Korean miracle. "What is the biggest education challenge you have?" he asked Lee. Without hesitating, Lee replied, "The biggest challenge I have is that my parents are too demanding."

That anecdote usually makes Americans chuckle -- and wince. It highlights how U.S. students are falling behind their peers in advanced nations in the global race for economic competitiveness. Most South Korean parents, even the poorest, insist that their children learn English starting in elementary school. As a result, South Korea has had to bring in thousands of foreign-language teachers. I wish the United States shared South Korea's challenge. Americans have good reason to be concerned: young adults in eight other nations, including South Korea, are more likely to have college degrees than those in the United States.

Yet the relationship between education and international competitiveness is a subject rife with myth and misunderstanding. There is a paradox at the heart of the United States' efforts to bolster international competitiveness: to succeed in today's knowledge economy, the United States will have to become both more economically competitive and more collaborative. For too long, policymakers, lawmakers, and voters have treated competitiveness as a zero-sum game, in which another nation's gain is necessarily the United States' loss. In fact, enhancing educational achievement and economic viability -- at home and abroad -- is more a win-win game, one with enormous benefits for the world and for the United States.

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