Dear Friend of Education,

Forty years ago this summer, former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford stepped to the microphone in a hotel ballroom in Chicago to address the first annual meeting of the Education Commission of the States (ECS).

The new organization, embodying a historic agreement among states to work together to improve public education, offered “the most exciting promise of any educational experiment on the American scene,” Sanford told the audience. “Its possibilities for good are unlimited; its prospect for leadership, unbounded; its potential for service in the cause of excellence, infinite.”

Among the various roles ECS would play was one Sanford viewed as particularly crucial: To convene an annual gathering of political and education leaders that would serve as “a dynamic forum for the debate of future directions in American education.”

This year, as we mark the 40 th anniversary of this unique and still-vital partnership, the agenda for The National Forum on Education Policy reflects the striking extent to which America's ability to maintain its place in the world now hinges on the quality and performance of its education system.

Today, our nation is competing in a dynamic global economy in which two assets -- a skilled, versatile and highly adaptable workforce, and the capacity to nurture creativity, research and innovation – provide the decisive edge.

Technology is transforming the workplace and, in many ways, the nature of work itself. The transition to a knowledge-based economy is fueling demand for well-educated, technically proficient workers -- in all sectors, across a wide range of occupations, and even for entry-level positions.

At the same time, potent and converging demographic trends will profoundly affect the size and composition of the U.S. labor force over the next 10 to 15 years – slower overall growth, the retirement of baby-boomers, and the expansion of populations in the workforce that tend to have significant educational and economic disadvantages. While the share of American workers with some education and training beyond high school increased by 20% between 1980 and 2000, it is projected to increase by less than 4% between now and 2020.

Within little more than a decade, then, the United States will find itself with a smaller, less experienced and increasingly under-educated labor force – a major liability in the increasingly competitive global economic race.

Just as worrisome, America has begun losing ground in what the National Center on Education and the Economy's Anthony Carnevale calls the global education race. Among economically advanced countries, nine now boast a better high-school completion rate. The United States has slipped from No. 1 to No. 4 in postsecondary attainment, and from No. 3 to No. 17 in the percentage of students pursuing science and engineering degrees.

Today, millions of American adults lack the education and skills needed to compete in a postindustrial economy – relegating them to low-wage, low-opportunity jobs with little access to training and retraining programs. The same fate awaits hundreds of thousands of young people who leave school each year without a diploma or ill-prepared for college and the workplace.

Despite two decades of intensive reform, the nation's education system remains plagued with troubling shortcomings and deficiencies – the school-readiness gap, the achievement gap, the participation gap, the persistence gap. And the fastest-growing portion of the school population – poor and minority children -- are those students whom the education system continues to serve least effectively.

Clearly, America can no longer afford to be a nation divided into educational haves and have-nots. It must find a way to provide all its citizens with the opportunity to attain higher levels of education and training than most have attained in the past. As Carnevale recently wrote: “We cannot remain a first-rate economic power with a second-rate education system.”

The 2005 National Forum on Education Policy was designed with these important challenges and issues in mind. It will include sessions on:

  • Redesigning America's high schools
  • Strengthening science, math and arts education
  • Increasing postsecondary access and participation
  • Expanding early child education
  • Improving teaching quality
  • Developing school and district leadership
  • Strengthening workforce development.

Featured speakers include ECS' 2004-06 chairman, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and Clayton M. Christensen, author of the bestselling “The Innovator's Dilemma” and “The Innovator's Solution.”

We invite you to join us July 12-15 in Denver what promises to be one of the best National Forums in ECS' history.


Piedad F. Robertson
President, Education Commission of the States