The way Thomas Friedman sees it, there is no coincidence involved in the fact that Citi Bank, the Icelandic Bank and the Antarctic ice banks all melted in the same year: The market and Mother Nature both hit a wall. Economics, he said, is unalterably intertwined with the environment, and the downward spiral of the United States’ economy – the Great Recession – is tied to the decline in public education in this country.

Education in this country has failed to prepare our youth – particularly those who do not seek post-high-school education – to be productive in a competitive world market, Mr. Friedman said as guest speaker at last Friday’s inauguration of Northwestern University president Morton Shapiro. “The decline of the American workers’ competitiveness in the world, particularly at the middle and bottom levels, is attributable to the decline in public education.” Mingling economic and education terms, he said this country is a “sub-prime dealer in education.”

“We cannot borrow or stimulate our way out of this economic crisis,” Mr. Friedman said. Our education system must be changed to reflect the new realities of 21st-centruy America mired in the Great Recession. More than simply knowledge, our education systems must give students the means and the opportunity to think creatively. Excess consumerism – and the jobs that go along with sating it – are things of the past. The new reality of the world, he said, “is not about ‘more’ … It’s about education and the right education.”

The “right” education, he said, must allow students to think at highly creative levels. “Average” is out, he said, and creativity is in. “Being average,” he said “is not enough – vanilla doesn’t cut it. …Imagination is the single most competitive advantage we have today, and a liberal arts education is the best foundation for creativity, because it offers the opportunity for lateral thinking.”

Mr. Friedman forcefully made a case for improving the educational system in the United States. He thus adds his voice to that of many others who say the same thing in a different way or with a different focus.

Advance Illinois, a non-profit organization co-chaired by former Governor Jim Edgar and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce William Daley, said in a recent report that high school students in the United States are falling behind; while they were among the best in the world in the 1970s, they now rank 24th in math and 19th in science among 29 developed nations. Advance Illinois recommends that Illinois raise expectations, and adopt rigorous, internationally benchmarked college- and career-ready standards.

The Illinois State Board of Education itself recognizes the need to revamp the state’s standards. It is one of 51 states and territories participating in the Common Core State Standards Initiative to develop a common core of state standards in English-language arts and mathematics for grades K-12.

The first official public draft of the college and career readiness standards was released several weeks ago; the group is now working back from those standards to develop K-12 standards that will allow students to achieve the college and career readiness standards by the 12th grade.

These standards are intended to set the stage for education in the United States for the next decade, and the goal is that they be rigorous and internationally benchmarked – meaning they are informed by the content, rigor and organization of standards of high performing countries – to “ensure all American students are prepared for the global economic workplace.”

We agree with Mr. Friedman’s assessment of the state of education in the country and support the mission of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Here in Evanston, we should set high expectations for all our students, so they all have an opportunity to compete in a changing world economy. Likewise, we should measure whether we are preparing our all of our students for college and careers using high standards.