Nothing would be more detrimental to our prospects for success than cutting back on education. It would consign America to second place in our fiercely competitive global economy. But China and India aren’t playing for second. South Korea and Germany aren’t playing for second. They’re playing for first – and so should America.

— President Barack Obama
Transcript here.

Education continues to be the hot topic, at least for now. It’s ground zero for the direction and identity the country will take. It’s highly debatable in terms of what is applicable and what is useless knowledge for life. Education has many measurements, yet may also be the least valued asset. In the President’s weekly, he wants to make more of an investment.

That’s why, from the start of my administration, we’ve been fighting to offer every child in this country a world-class education – from the cradle to the classroom, from college through a career. Earlier this week, I announced a new Skills for America’s Future initiative that will help community colleges and employers match what’s taught in the classroom with what’s needed in the private sector, so we can connect students looking for jobs with businesses looking to hire.

One of my Facebook friends drew our attention to Glen Greenwald’s post “Collapsing Empire” on

…as recently as 1999, the U.S. was ranked by the World Health Organization as 24th in life expectancy. It’s now 49th. There are other similarly potent indicators. In 2009, the National Center for Health Statistics ranked the U.S. in 30th place in global infant mortality rates. Out of 20 “rich countries” measured by UNICEF, the U.S. ranks 19th in “child well-being.” Out of 33 nations measured by the OECD, the U.S. ranks 27th for student math literacy and 22nd for student science literacy. In 2009, the World Economic Forum ranked 133 nations in terms of “soundness” of their banks, and the U.S. was ranked in 108th place, just behind Tanzania and just ahead of Venezuela.

What about “the children”? What about the banks? What about jobs?

Recently urban education reformists (superintendents and chancellors) such as Joel Klein (NY), Michelle Rhee (DC), Andres A. Alonso (Baltimore), Paul Vallas signed onto a “manifesto” that was published in the Op-Ed Sunday section (Outlook) of the Washington Post on Sunday.

Test #1. Ask students “what is a manifesto?” Watch certain segments of the population get nervous. But here these education leaders stand:

As educators, superintendents, chief executives and chancellors responsible for educating nearly 2 1/2 million students in America, we know that the task of reforming the country’s public schools begins with us. It is our obligation to enhance the personal growth and academic achievement of our students, and we must be accountable for how our schools perform.

How will that accountability be measured?

As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.

To which another education expert, Keven J. Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center, offered this rebuttal:

If the president did in fact say this, he is wrong. While no researcher could offer precise numbers, regression models tend to attribute a far greater role to out-of-school factors such as parental educational level and family income.

While teacher quality is, in my opinion, the most important in-school factor, there are many others: school leadership, class size, facilities (e.g, working bathrooms, heating, air conditioning, lighting, etc), learning resources (books, computers), and curriculum.

….It is disgraceful for these leaders who are in charge of 2.5 million students – disproportionately students in impoverished, urban areas – to act as enablers for those who dismiss the need to address issues of concentrated poverty.

Meanwhile, a Superman (Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone) has happened across kryptonite aka The New York Times :

After a rocky start earlier this decade typical of many new schools, Mr. Canada’s two charter schools, featured as unqualified successes in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” the new documentary, again hit choppy waters this summer, when New York State made its exams harder to pass.

….The parent organization of the schools, the Harlem Children’s Zone, enjoys substantial largess, much of it from Wall Street. While its cradle-to-college approach, which seeks to break the cycle of poverty for all 10,000 children in a 97-block zone of Harlem, may be breathtaking in scope, the jury is still out on its overall impact. And its cost — around $16,000 per student in the classroom each year, as well as thousands of dollars in out-of-class spending — has raised questions about its utility as a nationwide model.

How did my 5th grade public school teacher do it? He promised my mother he’d raise my math scores by the end of the semester (by the next test). He accomplished his goal. We had daily drills. Prizes for improvement. Score sheets posted on the wall (competition). And once I reached my goal, my job was to teach a fellow student who was still behind. Sometimes the best way to learn is to teach. But that’s not a manifesto.

Maybe the success factor goes back to my answer to the pollster’s question on education reform: “It’s too soon to tell.”

Update: The Washington Post is reporting that DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee will announce her resignation from her position effective the end of October. The mayoral election for DC is November 2nd. The school year is just entering its 2nd quarter (out of four).