U.S. Education Must Keep up With China's, India's Bold Programs

America must invest in education if it wants to be competitive in the global economy.

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Matt James is the president of the Center for the Next Generation, a nonpartisan strategic think tank based in San Francisco, and Neera Tanden is the president of the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The United States reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the medal count at the 2012 Olympic Games earlier this month, edging out China, the 2008 winner, but in the competition that really matters our nation may not be so successful in the coming decades.

That more important race to educate our children and our workforce to out-compete the rest of the world in an intensely competitive global economy pits us against China and India, both of which are investing heavily in education to gain a long-distance edge over the United States while we handicap our chances with short-sighted policy disputes and political paralysis.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Here are the stark numbers. By 2030, China will have 200 million college graduates—more than the entire U.S. workforce. By 2020 India will be graduating four times as many college graduates as the United States. We need to turn our attention to how we educate the next generation of American workers to ensure our continued economic competitiveness well into the 21st century.

The central question before us as a country, and what should be the central question for the presidential contenders, is how do we compare with our global competitors in supporting and investing in our most valuable asset, our children?

New research from our two organizations reveals how China and India have embarked on bold, ambitious programs to prepare more of their young people for the challenges—and the well-paying jobs—of the global marketplace. They are investing more than ever in their future while the United States is fighting to keep up.

As our national leaders dither and debate how to reform education and state officials slash education funding to balance budgets, China and India have implemented strategies that invest their next generation of workers to produce millions more college graduates than the United States over the next two decades.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Foreign STEM Graduates Get Green Cards?]

The jobs of the future, especially in the critical-need areas of science, technology, engineering and math, will go to the brainiest, no matter what country they come from. As the world's most populous nations, China and India are poised to out-think and out-compete us by their sheer numbers.

China is already graduating over 1 million college graduates a year in the areas of science, technology, and mathematics while the United States graduates fewer than half that number. What we're doing now is clearly not enough, and imagine what happens in the years to come if investments in our children decline.

That's why we call for the president of the United States in early 2013 to convene a national summit on education cosponsored by the National Governors Association to renew our commitment to improve the education of all American children. This summit should set realistic, yet rigorous, national goals and devise a bipartisan a plan to achieve them, building on the so called Common Core Standards of educational excellence adopted so far by 45 states. These standards outline what kindergarten-through-12th grade students need to master to succeed in college or excel in workforce training programs in the industries of the future.

[John Engler: STEM Education Is the Key to the U.S.'s Economic Future]

This summit would demonstrate the high priority that needs to be placed on training, supporting, and retaining highly-effective teachers. And it would focus on critical importance of increased investments in early education as well as workplace policies that allow parents to be more involved in the education of their children. We can't afford any more missed opportunities.

Even in an era of extreme political partisanship, America's children are too valuable of a national asset to abandon. While there's a lot of talk about economic growth in this year's presidential race, the fact is that other countries recognize their most prized economic resources are their kids. America must take immediate action to play catch up; otherwise, we can't promise our kids that this century will belong to America.