In the race for global competitiveness, 'America is in danger of falling behind,' President Obama said in a Dec. 6 speech.

Default Lines column, January 2011 edition of eSchool NewsOn the morning of Oct. 5, 1957, readers of the New York Times woke up to a jarring three-line headline that spanned the width of the newspaper’s front page in all-capital letters: “SOVIET FIRES EARTH SATELLITE INTO SPACE; IT IS CIRCLING THE GLOBE AT 18,000 M.P.H.; SPHERE TRACKED IN 4 CROSSINGS OVER U.S.”

And so began the panicked reaction to the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which shocked U.S. policy makers into realizing they no longer led the world in technological development. Sputnik’s launch spurred passage of the National Defense Education Act, a four-year program that poured billions of dollars into education funding. In 1953, the federal government spent $153 million on education funding; by 1960, this amount had grown nearly sixfold.

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Fast forward more than five decades, and there have been several events in the past few months that should have prompted a similar sense of urgency among U.S. policy makers … and yet the collective response of the nation has been nowhere near as dramatic:

• In the latest international comparisons from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), released in December, U.S. students ranked 25th out of 65 industrialized countries in math, 14th in reading, and 17th in science. In its first year of participating in these international assessments, the province of Shanghai, China, topped the world in all three disciplines in 2009—outscoring U.S. students 600 to 487, on average, in math; 575 to 502 in science; and 556 to 500 in reading.

• For the first time ever, China also now boasts the world’s fastest supercomputer, the New York Times reported in October. According to Jack Dongarra, a University of Tennessee computer scientist who maintains the supercomputer rankings, the Chinese machine, known as Tianhe-1A, has 1.4 times the power of the previously top-ranked computer, which sits at a national laboratory in Tennessee.

• Korea, which ranked first among OECD countries in reading and math and third in science, is “years ahead” of the United States in terms of internet connectivity, reports Blair Levin, a former chief of staff for the Federal Communications Commission during the Clinton administration and now a policy analyst for the Aspen Institute. During a meeting of the State Educational Technology Directors Association in November, Levin said Korea is closing in on its goal of delivering 100 Mbps of connectivity to every home in the nation.

These developments might not have registered in our nation’s collective consciousness, but they haven’t escaped the notice of President Barack Obama. Calling this our generation’s “Sputnik moment,” the president on Dec. 6 urged lawmakers to step up their spending on education and infrastructure to make sure the United States isn’t left behind in the global economic race.

“We need a commitment to innovation we haven’t seen since President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon,” Obama said in a speech at North Carolina’s Forsyth Technical Community College. He added: “In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind. That’s just the truth. And if you hear a politician say it’s not, they’re just not paying attention.”

The speech was a preview of the State of the Union address the president will give in January as he tries to grapple with a divided Congress over the next two years, his aides told the Associated Press.

Obama is absolutely right: America can’t afford to dither while other countries pass us by. But his message will be a hard sell to a House of Representatives whose new leaders say their No. 1 priority is to reduce spending, as our story “GOP victories could affect education funding, ed tech” indicates.

Other recent columns by Editor Dennis Pierce:

This ‘Superman’ doesn’t fly

Putting our ideas of assessment to the test

Corporate policy making would result in a net loss

Are computers for every student a wise investment?

Editorial: Media illiteracy

The fear of being left behind in the struggle for global competitiveness apparently was trumped during the Nov. 2 midterm elections by the fear of leaving today’s students a debt they can’t repay, as House Republicans swept into power on a wave of voter concerns about the nation’s budget deficit.

While those concerns are legitimate, where were they in December when the House leaders-in-waiting dug in their heels over extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans who don’t need them?

Reducing the deficit and investing more in education aren’t mutually exclusive goals, but it will take an honest conversation about our priorities as a nation if we’re to accomplish both. And that kind of frank discussion is, frankly, hard to have when cable TV’s top-rated news channel, Fox News, routinely conflates news and conservative opinion.

In view of this challenge, maybe the fact that Fox News’ parent company, News Corp., is getting into the ed-tech business (see our story “News Corp. jumps into ed-tech field”) will be a good thing for schools.

After all, if News Corp. is to make any money from its latest venture, it will need a host of customers that are flush with cash. Perhaps the message permeating Fox News programming in the months ahead will finally align with what educators have been saying for years: If we don’t spend more on our schools, our children’s future will suffer.