Commentary: We're ignoring a national threat

A dangerous enemy threatens America. This threat is hard to confront, because it does not represent any one government and is not in any one location; it operates in smaller cells all over. If not stopped, it is sure to inflict violence on the country, decimate cities and alter our way of life.

I'm not talking about al-Qaida, but about another menace just as dangerous as a terrorist in the long run: The utter failure to educate today's kids, tomorrow's adults.

Did you see the test scores from around the nation that were released last week? Abysmal.

The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card, reaffirmed that large chunks of American students are not getting the basic education they'll need to succeed. There's a general sense that U.S. schools aren't as good as they need to be. But these scores point to a persistent crisis.

Eighty-five percent of black eighth-graders are not proficient at reading. And 87 percent of black eighth-graders are not proficient in math. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, 84 percent of black eighth-graders are not proficient in math, yet that is close to the best among urban districts.

It's not just minorities. More than half of white eighth-graders weren't proficient in math or reading. Overall, almost two-thirds of the nation's eighth-graders are not proficient in either math or reading. This has been a problem for years and the numbers improve at a glacial rate.

A threat to national security

This news shocked the nation and set off a massive call for fixes, right? Um, no.

It was a one-day story and the world moved on. The Observer's headline touted that CMS is "among top urban districts on U.S. tests." (The story did also dig deep on the low scores.) The WBT radio story emphasized CMS's relative performance and ended with one sentence about minorities trailing. The approach was similar across the nation.

I'm sorry, but if you're not terrified that nine out of 10 black kids and two-thirds of all kids are not proficient in basic eighth-grade subjects, you're just not paying attention. How will these students lead America 25 years from now? How will they even hold down a job? The implications for the country's future are enormous. In fact, for all the problems that our cities and country are enduring now and will face in the future, none threatens national security more than an entire generation of uneducated people.

Expectations, carrots and sticks

I guess the reason last week's test-scores news didn't spark a panic is because it's hardly news. We've become accustomed to the idea that a majority of kids are failing to get the education they'll need in a 21st century economy.

If we don't shake ourselves out of that complacency, America's stature is in jeopardy. It's a complex problem, but solving it starts with far more urgency from everyone - from national leaders to your average parent.

We must have the highest expectations of schools, and create carrots and sticks for principals and teachers based on those expectations. We need to incentivize innovation and reward it. We must crack the hardest nut of all - under-performing parents. And we must start at birth - in utero, actually - and work with children up to age 5 so they are not already behind on the first day of kindergarten.

Cost of prevention vs. cure

We know this works. It's happening in small pockets in Charlotte and across the nation: Intense attention to all kids, starting at a very early age. Teachers with high expectations. Programs, like Communities in Schools, that connect with kids individually and work to keep them in school. Summer programs, like Freedom Schools, that keep kids reading and out of trouble. Teachers collaborating to help students, like at Mallard Creek High School.

This all costs money, but much less than prison cells, emergency rooms and a lifetime spent on government assistance. Invest in education and you will see all those other costs drop.

Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, has demonstrated what can be done. He has produced incredible results in one of the nation's toughest areas - 97 blocks in Central Harlem, New York. He understands the enormity of the problem - and the payoff of solving it.

"When you get that child through college, you've changed not only that child's trajectory," Canada told CNN this summer. "You've changed the trajectory for all of the kids that child will have and you've really done something to end generational poverty."

We have no time to waste.