Forty years ago, the United States boasted the best graduation rates in the world; now it ranks 18th. On international tests, the United States ranks 25th in math, 15th in reading, and 17th in science. As President Obama said in his speech to Congress some weeks ago, "This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow."

Partisanship and states rights need to step aside and legislators need to work together toward the common goal of a nationwide educational plan based on predetermined, far-reaching goals. We know what doesn't work. It's time to use that knowledge, learn from our mistakes, and move forward using successful models for guidance.

In seeking to learn from the best, I have been working with the Woodrow Wilson Center's Program on America and the Global Economy in a series of meetings with the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellows, outstanding math and science teachers from across the country who are selected to spend a year in Washington. They have given us new insights into everything from the question of national standards to the preparation of teachers to new thinking about professional development.

In the final analysis, schools are the creatures of a combination of state and federal legislation. The quality of education, however, still depends on local schools and local leadership. Consequently, the result is that students experience great degrees of variation in educational experiences, even as they are thrust into a competitive world, both national and international, with a wide disparity of intellectual skills. This clearly points to the need for school reform.

The administration's education policy, as proclaimed by Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, is that we are in a race to the top. The education budget was increased by $4.5 billion but reforms are needed in programs such as "no child left behind" or this funding increase will not move us as a nation from number 18 to number 1 again.
Our standard of living in the future depends on improving our education goals in the United States. Or, as an ancient Chinese proverb states, "If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people." This is the challenge that confronts us all.

Ralph Regula is a former U.S. representative from Ohio and served on the House Appropriations Committee as chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.