I read recently that the United States is 31st in educational accomplishment in the world, as measured by testing. This is a starling statistic that has profound consequences for the future of our nation.

We like to hold ourselves out as the nation of greatest achievement, but a survey of graduates from our top colleges clearly shows the highest-scoring graduates are frequently from other countries. Our higher education schools are still among the best in the world, but how long can we hold that distinction when top graduates take their brains and accomplishments back to their own countries?

What can we do? First, put someone in the position of secretary of education who has a background in public schools and is familiar with the problems that need attention. Betsy DeVos is said to be kind to her mother.

We can support requiring education for all children before age 6. We know that preschool education gives kids a true “head start,” and that the fastest learning is from birth to age 3. We should be capitalizing on the hungry brains of young children, making early childhood social and cognitive education a priority for all kids.

We can stop tolerating bad grammar and lazy speech, or misspelling and poor punctuation in our written word. Communication suffers if the hearer cannot understand the spoken word, or the reader cannot understand the thought imparted by misspelled words or poor punctuation. If a child cannot properly pronounce words, that child has no future in any profession that requires speech. If we need speech therapists in our schools, we need to be addressing that need.

We can pay our teachers in grades K-12 a living wage and give them enough supplies to meet classroom needs. A recent survey of teachers demonstrated that, on average, teachers spend $500 a year of their own money on classroom supplies, and some classrooms don’t have enough books. How do we keep the best and brightest teaching when we don’t support them?

While other countries have year-round schools with shorter days, we have held to a 180-day schedule with longer days and a long summer break, a leftover from the years when parents needed their kids to help on the farm. But few kids are needed to farm now, and they have nothing productive to do in the summer. In addition, research shows many school days start too early for kids to concentrate, and last too long after kids get tired to pay attention. We need to consider year-round school to keep our kids from forgetting what they’ve learned from one school year to the next, and shorter days to give kids time to be fully awake to stay attentive.

Education has to be a priority if we are going to raise the opportunities for all kids. We have not done our students any favor if we pass them from grade to grade without them achieving a basic level of competence.

At the college level, we can put more emphasis on academic scholarships. Currently, we put too much emphasis on athletics, sacrificing academic scholarships to athletic scholarships. Some colleges actually have special classes for athletes, which go slower and allow athletes to pass without achievement. It is a fraud against our students if we allow them to graduate from college without college-level skills.

We have created a system where only the children of the wealthy can afford college, neglecting many bright kids who don’t come from fortunate circumstances, or leaving them with student loans that cripple them financially for years after graduation. Perhaps we should consider free or low tuition to state colleges for any child having graduated from high school with a high grade-point average.

We know that children in poverty-prone areas are falling behind. Kids need stable, healthy homes and parents need stable, healthy child care to allow them to go to work or school. The 2018 omnibus spending bill provided funding for early head start and child care and nutrition programs and we need to be sure we are accessing every assistance available to us, but more than that, we must be willing to make changes that benefit kids, families and our country.

Most importantly, we need parents to step up to get and keep kids in school. Some districts hold parents responsible for getting their kids to school and on time, taking parents to court to explain to the judge why their kids are late or missing. Some impose jail time. It sounds Draconian, but maybe it’s what we need to do to help our kids envision a future that doesn’t include selling drugs on the streets.

Martha Johnson is an Elizabeth City resident.