Across the valley our children are eagerly anticipating school. Be it their first year or senior year, the excitement of new classes, connecting with friends and the chance to learn has them looking forward to August 30. As adults, we remember sharpening our pencils, getting our books together and showing up with tales of summer adventures.

While much as the social aspect of school can be the prime motivator for children and young adults, it is, first and foremost, education that schools provide. Excellent teachers harness this youthful energy, direct it toward academics and prepare children to be part of our society.

The United States was one of the first nations to provide education - across the board - for children. From the humble one-room schoolhouses on the prairie to research universities that drive our economic engine, we pride ourselves on education. By providing this first step of the American dream we have led the world in innovation and economic performance and provided a beacon of democracy to nations across the world.

As we enter the second decade of the third millennium, our education system remains solid. Yet the metrics of education indicate we are loosing our edge. We are slipping. Recently the College Board noted that we are 12th among developed nations with college graduates age 25-34. The report states, "As America's aging and highly educated work force moves into retirement, the nation will rely on young Americans to increase our standing in the world."

Canada, South Korea, Russia, Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Israel, France Belgium and Australia all rank higher than the U.S. Which is pretty dismal. As innovation and knowledge drives the economic engine, it would seem logical that we address, in light of the recession and jump-starting the economy, our current state of education. To prepare students for university-level education, high school is the first step.

Montana was recently ranked 44th by states with teens out of school without a high school diploma. Our neighbors in Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota have been able to keep kids in school longer and ensure a higher percentage of graduates. The prospects for a high school dropout are not good. They will earn less, stand a better chance of ending up in prison (hence costing our communities more tax dollars), and are more likely to divorce and be single parents. As a state, we need to take this challenge to task. Our educators work long hours and on a daily basis care for our children. Yet if we do not provide eager, attentive and inquisitive students, our teachers can only go so far. Education begins at home and is supplemented and nurtured by our educational system.

We need to place an importance on education that surpasses our fascination with popular culture. As a middle-school student, Neil Armstrong and the Apollo astronauts were my heroes. These brave explorers embodied knowledge and physical prowess. Do we still have inspirational leaders that place academic performance, dedicated study habits and hard-won success at the forefront? Or are we distracted by a pop culture that holds academia in contempt and glorifies the decadent?

With the ever-increasing global world our children compete in, they stand to benefit from an excellent educational system. Conversely, they also stand to lose big should we fail to prepare them for the complex challenges the next 50 years will present. It is our responsibility, as families, students, educators and politicians, to work together for a better future.

Conrad Anker is a mountaineer and author. He lives with his family in Bozeman.




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