This morning, I had the pleasure of attending a panel presentation on the Implications of Washington Telecom Policy on Jobs, Investment and Economic Recovery at the Newseum in Washington, DC. The conference room offered an amazing view of the Capital Dome, which was fitting as the panelists looked to Congress to reign in what was perceived as an attempt at regulatory overreach on behalf of the FTC and FCC to regulate the internet. 

Premature regulation could significantly stifle innovation which is bad for economic growth and job creation. But regulation doesn’t present the only potential hindrance to innovation. Lack of a qualified work force could significantly undermine America’s leadership role in the not so distant future.

Michael Powell, former Chairman of the FCC raised this important point towards the end of his keynote address. Citing the 33 percent high school drop-out rate, Powell stated that, although, he believed that America was still the innovation leader of the world, the education crisis was putting the country at a disadvantage in the long term. Highlighting that both a strong customer base and a qualified workforce were crucial for innovation to take place, and for the benefits of innovation to become widely available, Powell raised concerns that the poor state of educational achievement may be rendering America’s children unable to take advantage of the information economy.

This Tuesday the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development announced the newest PISA scores, illustrating just how chronic America’s educational state of mediocrity is. The Washington Post reports that the global survey of student achievement among 15-year olds showed the U.S. to score right around the average.

After a decade of intensive efforts to improve its schools, the United States posted these results in a new global survey of 15-year-old student achievement: average in reading, average in science and slightly below average in math.

Those middling scores lagged significantly behind results from several countries in Europe and Asia in the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to be made public Tuesday.  

Sadly, these scores are no news. Nor does the current education landscape suggest that we should expect any staggering improvements in the near future. Teachers unions are still going strong at blocking any real efforts for reform, despite the occasional success stories we’ve seen, most recently in NYC and DC , for example. Unless we can gather the political will for a fundamental restructuring of how education is delivered in America, I am afraid America will continue to score only average in basic education.

Recent research on the correlation between PISA scores and innovation suggests that average PISA scores are only weak indicators of a nation’s strength in innovation. Only the scores of the highest 95th percentile are relevant for the purposes of innovation. This may very well be the case, and it may suggest that Michael Powell’s concerns, that the education crisis is putting America’s role as a leader in innovation at risk, are unfounded.

Nevertheless, failing public schools which drag not only our PISA scores down, but more importantly put many of America’s children at a disadvantage, are morally impermissible, and are actually hurting our potential for economic growth. As Carrie Lukas pointed out in an Op-ed last year:

The management consulting firm McKinsey and Company looked at the effects of our failure to provide a quality education in order to estimate its impact on the economy. They compared it to a “permanent national recession” that made our country hundreds of billions of dollars poorer each year. Imagining how much better off we would be if our education system achieved the superior results of other countries, analysts concluded that “if the United States had in recent years closed the gap between its educational achievement levels and those of better-performing nations such as Finland and Korea, GDP in 2008 could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher.” That’s between $4,300 and $7,600 per person.   

The PISA results remind us once again that meaningful education reforms ought to be a national priority.