Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt isn't a trained educator; his background is in public policy. His audience of Kentuckians last week consisted mostly of business people.
But his sobering message was as much about business and public policy as it was about education. He said the mediocrity of American public schools is a huge threat to the nation and its economic prosperity.
"It is incontrovertible that America is in decline," Roosevelt said. "It is serious, and it is deeply rooted in education."
The percentage of Americans who are college graduates has remained at about 30 percent for the past half-century, while it has doubled and tripled in some other countries, he said. More than half the engineering students at U.S. universities now are foreigners.
America's anti-academic popular culture, where most children spend hours each day watching television and playing video games, is a big part of the problem. "We celebrate swagger over work," Roosevelt said.
The focus on improving the achievement gap among poor and minority students, as important as it is, obscures the fact that good schools and students aren't doing well enough compared with those in countries that are the emerging economic powers.
American school children's curricula are less rigorous, and they spend less time in school than students in other countries. Striving, Roosevelt said, is no longer a core American characteristic as it is in countries such as China and India.
"It's an odd form of arrogance to think we're going to be internationally competitive with the old agriculture-based school calendar," he said.
Other factors Roosevelt cited include the lack of national education standards, poor management of schools and teacher mediocrity, which is a result of low prestige, low pay and low standards. Teacher hiring and tenure policies are part of the problem. So are hidebound teachers' unions, although non-union schools don't seem to perform any better than unionized ones, he said.
Roosevelt said business and civic leaders must demand more from public schools, and they must be willing to provide the resources and leadership to improve them. School systems must become more willing to include non-traditional educators, such as retired professionals and new college graduates in such programs as Teach for America.
Excellent teachers are vital. "We need a national call to action to encourage the best and brightest to go into teaching," he said.
Roosevelt has overseen significant reforms in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, which have launched a $250 million scholarship program called The Pittsburgh Promise. It guarantees that students who graduate with good grades beginning in 2012 will receive a four-year scholarship for higher education worth about $10,000 a year.
"We need to think about what we want in this country," Roosevelt said. "More education is the key to improving economic growth and quality of life."
Roosevelt followed another speaker with a powerful message about education. Bill Strickland is the founder and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corp., an after-school arts program that targets inner-city high school students and an industry-designed vocational training program for unemployed adults.
"It's all in the way we treat people that shapes behavior," said Strickland, who spoke in Lexington last month at the Creative Cities Summit. "You can take people who are on the liability side of society's ledger and make them into assets. It's called common sense, which is in very short supply in our country right now."
Efforts are already underway to work with Manchester Bidwell to replicate its program in Lexington, perhaps as part of a new Fayette County Schools vocational education program in agriculture sciences.
Another key to economic prosperity will be getting Kentucky to adequately value and fund its research universities. As Pittsburgh has shown, research universities are key to creating the ideas, technologies and companies that will shape the future of regional economies.
During a panel discussion, University of Louisville President James Ramsey and University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. were critical of the General Assembly's failure to adequately fund the research and education necessary for Kentucky's economic future.
"Really important startups come out of deep wells of research," said Tim McNulty of Carnegie Mellon University. "Innovation is very much a local sport."