By Yvonne Siu and Sara Toland

As we strive to out-educate and out-innovate the rest of the world, educators, businesses, policymakers, families and communities are grappling with how to increase the academic performance and work readiness of America’s students. Research has shown that employers think new entrants to the labor force are unprepared for the workplace of the 21st century. They cite a lack of basic and applied skills—like oral and written communications, teamwork and problem-solving skills—necessary for long-term job success.

For years, the fact that the U.S. has such a heterogeneous and diverse population has explained away the poor performance of our schools and students in comparison to other countries. But according to new research and rankings of student performance by Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson at Harvard and Ludger Woessmann at the University of Munich, American students still perform poorly in math proficiency compared to other countries even when students are compared by state, by race and by the educational level of their parents.

As reported in “Your Child Left Behind,” an article in the December 2010 issue of the Atlantic, their findings were grim:

“Even if we treat each [U.S] state as its own country, not a single one makes it into the top dozen contenders on the list. The best performer is Massachusetts, ringing in at No. 17. Minnesota also makes it into the upper-middle tier, followed by Vermont, New Jersey, and Washington. And down it goes from there, all the way to Mississippi, whose students—by this measure at least—might as well be attending school in Thailand or Serbia.”

To narrow the international comparison further, the researchers compared high-performing white students in each state and those with at least one college-educated parent to groups of similar students in other countries.

“As it turned out, even these relatively privileged students do not compete favorably with average students in other well-off countries. On a percentage basis, New York state has fewer high performers among white kids than Poland has among kids overall. In Illinois, the percentage of kids with a college-educated parent who are highly skilled at math is lower than the percentage of such kids among all students in Iceland, France, Estonia, and Sweden…People will find it quite shocking that even our most-advantaged students are not all that competitive.”

The article attributes Massachusetts’ success to the educational reforms the state has undertaken, including raising standards for both teachers and students. The article also points out that the U.S. fixates on education spending and class size, although those factors have little to do with academic performance.

“Per student, we now spend more than all but three other countries—Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway—on elementary and secondary education. And the list of countries that spend the most, notably, has little in common with the outcomes that Hanushek and his colleagues put into rank order.”

In addition to higher standards in education, there are positive roles for businesses and communities to play in increasing the competitiveness of students to participate in the workforce of tomorrow. Indeed, although the Atlantic article does not mention it, the U.S. business community is very engaged, through various channels, in working with the educational system and community stakeholders to enhance our nation’s talent pipeline.

“Your Child Left Behind” emphasizes the pressing issue of our nation’s best and brightest not being able to compete academically with their counterparts abroad. A symptom of children being left behind in America more broadly speaking is the issue of “disconnected youth”—those young adults aged 16 to 24 who are not even in school or the labor market, and have low prospects for joining either. Clearly, it’s a problem if our high academic achievers aren’t doing as well as they could be—but it’s an even bigger problem if our youth are completely disengaged and not connected to the formal educational system or labor market at all. Under the auspices of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Corporate Voices is working with the business community to engage these “disconnected youth” through its Alternative Pathways initiative to address this issue.

Corporate Voices also believes that leaders across sectors and in all levels of government and society should collaborate and develop innovative solutions to help prepare America’s future workforce.  That is why it is part of the Ready by 21 National Partnership, an unprecedented coalition of organizations representing the government, education, non-profit, business, research and philanthropic sectors. The Partnership is working with communities across the country to implement strategies to improve the odds that all youth will be ready for college, work and life. Through its Ready by 21 initiative, Corporate Voices has published a series of tools and resources to help local business and community leaders engage each other and build sustainable partnerships to help youth succeed.

And recognizing that the jobs of the future will require at least some postsecondary education, Corporate Voices is working to identify and encourage partnerships between employers and community colleges to increase workforce readiness skills and college completion rates among low-income Americans. Through its Learn and Earn initiative, Corporate Voices is spotlighting innovative ways community colleges and employers are making it possible for young people to successfully combine postsecondary education with work. Corporate Voices’ new report, “From an ‘Ill-Prepared’ to a Well-Prepared Workforce: The Shared Imperatives for Employers and Community Colleges to Collaborate” outlines examples of promising employer and community college partnerships, including examples of the Verizon Wireless partnership with Pima Community College and AOL’s partnership with Northern Virginia Community College and Year Up.

So, as we prepare to “win the future,” let’s consider all the ways employers and communities can collaborate and work with the educational system to help improve educational outcomes for our future workforce, and for America’s future economic competitiveness.