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Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century

One of the most fundamental obligations of any society is to prepare its adolescents and young adults to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults. This means preparing all young people with a solid enough foundation of literacy, numeracy, and thinking skills for responsible citizenship, career development, and lifelong learning. For over a century, the United States led the world in equipping its young people with the education they would need to succeed. By the middle of the 19th century, as Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz write in their book, The Race between Education and Technology, “the U.S. already had the most educated youth in the world.” At the turn of the 20th century, just as Europe was catching up, the rapid spread of the “high school movement” helped the U.S. vault ahead again. Yet as we end the first decade of the 21st century, there are profoundly troubling signs that the U.S. is now failing to meet its obligation to prepare millions of young adults. In an era in which education has never been more important to economic success, the U.S. has fallen behind many other nations in educational attainment and achievement. Within the U.S. economy, there is also growing evidence of a “skills gap” in which many young adults lack the skills and work ethic needed for many jobs that pay a middle-class wage. Simultaneously, there has been a dramatic decline in the ability of adolescents and young adults to find work. Indeed, the percentage of teens and young adults who have jobs is now at the lowest level since World War II.