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How Can We Get the American Dream Back for Our Kids?

If we want to ensure a chance at a better life for our kids, a good place to start is by making sure that teachers have the tools to help their students reach success, step by step.
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Earlier this fall, one of Time magazine's covers asked a profound question, "Can you still move up in America?" Likewise, in a special Thanksgiving interview, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CBS's Bob Schieffer that she believes the struggling U.S. public school system is the nation's biggest problem:

I worry that the way that my grandparents got out of poverty, the way that my parents became educated, is just not going to be there for a whole bunch of kids... education even in the segregated South was always the way that you got out.

Both of these statements emphasize an underlying concern that has been growing throughout the country, namely, that tomorrow's generation won't have a shot at the American Dream and the opportunity to have a better quality of life because our educational system no longer provides the path.

These concerns are valid. The data show that an individual's chances of reaching the middle class drop significantly without pre-reading and math skills in early childhood (0-5 years), basic reading and math skills in middle childhood (5-12 years), a high school diploma with a GPA of greater than 2.5 in adolescence (12-19 years), a post-secondary degree, or equivalent family income at the transition to adulthood (19-29 years). And yet, nearly half of America's public schools did not meet federal achievement standards this year, according to the Center on Education Policy. The national report released this month showed more than 43,000 schools -- or 48 percent -- did not make "adequate yearly progress." The failure rates ranged from a low of 11 percent in Wisconsin to a high of 89 percent in Florida.

This fundamental problem among primary and secondary schools means that there are not enough students in the pipeline who are ready for college. For instance, research from the Lumina Foundation shows that the U.S. has fallen from first in the world in the proportion of adults that hold two- or four-year college degrees to fourth; we are becoming one of the few nations worldwide in which younger adults are not better educated than older adults.

This stagnation comes at a time when the world is demanding a workforce with more brains than brawn. A recent analysis conducted by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimated that 60 percent of jobs in the U.S will require post secondary education by 2018.

We must do better. If the current recession has taught us anything, it is the value of education in getting and keeping a job. While overall unemployment rates were at 10 percent this year, only 4.5 percent of college graduates were unemployed.

We can do better if we recognize that success in college depends on preparation that begins in middle school or earlier, especially in the critical areas of math and science. Students who fail to learn the basics in these fields have little hope of catching up in time to succeed in college. The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) merged this month with the teacher-training organization Laying the Foundation (LTF) precisely so that we can do more to prepare students for success from the sixth grade onward.

Merging with LTF was essential because it provides the training and classroom resources that teachers from middle school to high school need to effectively equip their students for the workforce or for advanced coursework. NMSI's Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program takes LTF's training further by preparing high school teachers to instruct and inspire students in AP math, science and English classes. This is the kind of pipeline to college that can return our country to preeminence in education, and it is essential for our competitive future.

Why are we putting more emphasis on teacher training? Research by the Education Trust has shown that as many as two-thirds of 5th to 8th grade students were being taught math by teachers who did not have a degree or certificate in math. Even worse, more than 90 percent of the students in those grades were being taught physical sciences by teachers with no degree or certificate in any physical science. These teachers are being put in the nearly impossible position of being asked to teach a subject in which they have little education or were not trained to teach.

Many teachers want the extra expertise and curriculum supplements that LTF provides. Even teachers with preparation in the subjects they are teaching find that LFT training helps them reach their full potential in the classroom. Teachers want to be able to stand before their students with confidence in their subject matter and the know-how to coach their students and instill in them a love of learning and discovery.

If we want to ensure a chance at a better life for our kids, a good place to start is by making sure that teachers have the tools to help their students reach success, step by step.

Dr. Mary Ann Rankin is president and CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative.