As U.S. schools try to distance themselves from the stigma that they are lagging behind other, less-industrialized nations, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is calling for a concerted national effort on school-wide reform, urging leaders in all 50 states to better prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century.

Napolitano launched her “Innovation America” initiative Aug. 7 after taking over as chair of the National Governors Association (NGA), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group representing the nation’s governors. The year-long endeavor, the cornerstone of her “Chair’s Initiative,” will focus on raising awareness about the need for American competitiveness and encouraging schools from coast to coast to reform their teaching strategies, especially in the areas of math and science, to better meet the needs of the new global economy.

“To be competitive as a nation, we must prepare our young people to meet the real demands of the job market,” said Napolitano, a Democrat who has received strong political support in a traditionally Republican stronghold, during the closing session of the NGA’s annual meeting in Charleston, S.C. “The goal of my Chair’s Initiative is to educate our students to be innovators, and to carry that spirit of innovation through their university experience and into the workforce. Math and science education teaches true problem-solving skills that, in turn, will increase our nation’s capacity for innovation in virtually every field.”

Looking at recent statistics, Napolitano said, can lead to only one conclusion: Change is a moral imperative for U.S. schools.

In 2005, the NGA reports, less than two-fifths of U.S. fourth- and eighth-grade students performed at or above grade level in math and science.

What’s more, Napolitano said, 15-year-olds in the United States ranked 24th out of 39 countries in a 2003 study that assessed students’ ability to apply mathematical concepts to real-world scenarios.

The quality of instruction that students receive might be part of the problem, said Napolitano. Despite their best efforts, she said, the fact remains that one-third of math teachers and one-fifth of science teachers in grades 7-12 lack a postsecondary major or minor in the subject areas they teach.

As part of Napolitano’s Chair’s Initiative, NGA says it will work to (1) raise national awareness about the need to improve U.S. innovation both in the business world and in schools; (2) share examples of best practices and provide a “tool box” of effective policies and strategies for use in schools; (3) present each governor with an economic profile specific to his or her state, including high-growth innovation centers and science and math proficiencies; (4) host regional learning labs and workshops to help states improve education in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math; and (5) form new science and math academies to improve student achievement and grow a workforce in emerging occupations.

“I look forward to working with … my gubernatorial colleagues to ensure innovation is top of mind for state leaders, educators, and the business community,” said Napolitano, who is the first woman to head the NGA.

Long heralded as a leader in educational technology, Arizona provides Napolitano with a wide body of work from which to call her gubernatorial colleagues to action.

In 2005, Empire High School in Arizona gained national attention for becoming the first school in the nation to move to an all-digital curriculum, trading in traditional textbooks for laptop computers. (See story: All-digital school passes first test.)

The state also has a reputation for embracing innovative practices ranging from virtual learning to interactive gaming. In 2001, education officials opened the Arizona Virtual Academy, a tuition-free charter public school for students interested in pursuing an alternative education. That same year, the state launched a web portal for teachers to track their professional development through a partnership with Utah-based TrueNorthLogic (formerly iAssessment).

Napolitano reportedly drew the inspiration for her innovation project from a speech she heard Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates give during an address to the nation’s governors in 2005. (See story: Gates, governors: Upgrade high school.)

During his speech–which became the catalyst for former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner’s 2005 Chair’s Initiative on high school reform–Gates called on policy makers and educators to reconfigure the nation’s high schools to meet the demands of a rapidly changing economy. Without the technical skills necessary to compete in the 21st century, Gates predicted, America eventually would cede its position as the world’s leading economic power.

The theme since has been reiterated by everyone from best-selling author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, to President Bush.

Recognizing the need for action, Bush during his 2006 State of the Union Address announced his American Competitiveness Initiative, a nearly $6 billion program intended to boost federal research and development efforts and improve education in technical disciplines. Congress is currently considering how much of the program it will fund in 2007.

Links:

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano
http://www.governor.state.az.us/

National Governors Association
http://www.nga.org

Innovation America
http://www.nga.org/files/pdf/06NAPOLITANOBROCHURE.pdf

Arizona Virtual Academy
http://www.azva.org/