Why do CEOs obsess over talent management? In “Good to Great,” the iconic business book published in 2001, author Jim Collins identified a surprising finding. The companies that transitioned from good to great began their ascent by deliberately getting the right people on the team — and the wrong people off. Only then could that committed, talented team work together to win, to become a great enterprise.

In other words, an organization is only as good as its people.

Now, picture the United States of America. It, too, is an organization of sorts. Our democratic republic, built upon the ideals of equality, liberty and freedom has enjoyed decades of relative prosperity. It is not a coincidence that the United States, from 1950 to 1990, had the most highly educated population in the world.

The combination of America’s education firepower and our system of free enterprise created a heady mix of innovation and productivity. But the talent side of our equation is waning. Other countries are now catching up (or passing us) in education attainment, and we still leave far too many young Americans behind in our public K-12 system.

We need to start obsessing about America’s talent management if we want our country’s prosperity to continue — and to become more inclusive. We need young people to have genuine choices about their futures.

Recent scores from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card, showed the biggest drops in reading and math scores recorded as the pandemic’s disruptions compounded pre-existing gaps. COVID-19 stole time for learning from our young people, leaving many unprepared for the next steps.

Now, 68 percent of fourth graders are not on grade level in reading, and 65 percent are not on track in math. That is 2.6 million 9- and 10-year-olds. Imagine the ideas, leadership and productivity held within the hearts and minds of those 2.6 million children — assets that would enrich our culture, strengthen our economy and bolster our democracy.

Redemption is possible, but it requires something from each of us. We were not educating all children well before the pandemic, particularly children living in poverty and children of color. Pretending learning loss and persistent gaps will just work out over time let the grown-ups off the hook — and young people left holding the bag.  Keeping standards high and comparable assessments in place is the responsible thing to do.

Serving all students well requires strengthening our current school system, but it also requires that we continue to expand school options that meet the full needs of children and their families. Many charter schools, parochial schools, magnet schools and others provide options that are better fitting for some families. We also need robust out-of-school providers who can enhance and build upon what schools deliver. More school models — and choices for families — strengthen the entire system.

We also must invest in the teachers who educate our children and the principals who lead our campuses. Teaching children well is important and sophisticated work. Teachers and principals need rigorous research-based preparation and continuing professional support. They need strong discernment to parse student performance data and to design effective, responsive instruction. They should be paid fair, professional wages with opportunities for genuine advancement.

And it requires teaching reading and math well, the building blocks that access higher-order ideas and knowledge. That seems obvious. But current student performance in reading and math on NAEP and state tests demonstrate, with gut-wrenching clarity, how many children are not learning as expected.

Parents and educators must demand strong instruction and a high-quality curriculum. A national movement to replace the debunked balanced literacy approach to teaching reading with a research-based science of reading approach is a great start. We need a similar effort in math.

Finally, success requires the unshakable belief that all children can learn and succeed. America, at its best, is a combination of people, empowered by freedom and education, who lead, create and serve. And that powerful mix creates a nation of prosperity and peace. It is worth fighting for and committing to that vision for America.

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