Stanford Professor Condoleezza Rice says problems plaguing American schools threaten the security of the United States and its leadership position in the world.
In an April 1 lecture hosted by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Rice, a former Secretary of State, said education reform "might be our greatest national security challenge."
Rice said failing schools undermine economic growth, competitiveness, social cohesion and the ability to fill positions in institutions vital to national security, such as the Foreign Service, intelligence and the military.
She said inequities in education are dividing the country, creating two Americas – those capable in the modern economy and those who are not.
"We can't afford to become a country of two populations," she said.
Rice, a professor at the Graduate School of Business and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said a good education, and one that includes the arts in addition to sciences, also inspires innovation, ingenuity and creativity.
"When you think about great cultures of the past … what are the first things that come to mind? The architecture, the arts," said Rice, who is a pianist. "And so to be fully human you have to be able to develop both sides."
Rice recently co-chaired a task force on education reform and national security sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. The task force, which also included Stanford education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, released its report last month. Rice's lecture highlighted many of the observations noted in the report.
"I don't think people generally understand the implications for national well-being and national security that the education problem raises," Rice said in response to a question from the audience.
She said it's all too easy to not worry about problems if they're not directly affecting your school district or your family.
But, she said, what happens to a student in a failing district does have larger implications for America's future.
"That's why it's a national security problem," she said.
Rice said her interest in, and love for, education came from her family. Her grandfather carved a path from the cotton fields to college and the generations after him followed.
"With a quality education," she said she was told as a young girl, "you had armor against whatever was coming at you."
Rice spent about 45 minutes responding to questions from the audience. She responded to queries on topics from teacher pay and school funding to voucher programs and early childhood education.
She reiterated her advocacy of comprehensive immigration reform that will "probably also ultimately have to look to some kind of path to citizenship."
"The United States doesn't want to be a place where people are afraid to go to an emergency room because they are undocumented. We just don't want to be that kind of country," she said.
She also said she's a fan of allowing parents to have more choice in what schools their children attend, even beyond charter schools. And she said the argument that a voucher system will erode public schools further isn't sustainable.
"You're leaving kids in poor schools and that's the height of inequality," she said.
Rice, a former Stanford provost, also spoke about the need for data in the education reform debate. She said universities have a role to play in acquiring and analyzing that data.
And she said the Graduate School of Education has done an exceptional job in bridging the gap between theory and practice in coming up with solutions to improve schools.
"Theory is important, ideas are important," she said. "But then going out and transferring those ideas into practical circumstances, testing them, improving the practical circumstances and then bringing that experience back into the academy is important both for the research function and the teaching function."
Rice's lecture was the first of a series of SCOPE Brown Bag Seminars taking place this spring. At the next seminar April 15, associate professor of education Anthony Antonio will address the social construction of college-going culture.
Brooke Donald is a writer at Stanford News Service.