U.S. schools need to embrace reforms that will help students compete in the new knowledge economy. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks about needed changes, including Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposal to consolidate the state's education infrastructure

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Education is the most important economic issue of our time. Today’s students need a world-class education if they will succeed in the global economy of the 21st century. Unfortunately, American students are poorly prepared to compete in the knowledge economy of today and the future.

It’s everyone’s responsibility to address this problem, but our elected officials must take the lead. Every governor should be an “education governor.” As the top elected official in their states, they are uniquely positioned to lead reforms and organize the private and public sectors to support those reforms.

Over the past two years, governors and other elected leaders have provided unprecedented leadership for school reforms that will accelerate student achievement. They understand that education is the cornerstone of a strong economy, and they are taking courageous steps to challenge the status quo in education. Governors and chief state school officers in 48 states have worked together to create common academic standards that will prepare students for success in college and careers. This will end the practice of lying to children and adults that dummied down standards will prepare students for success.

In response to unprecedented federal resources available under the federal Race to the Top program, Washington and 45 other states created bold, comprehensive reform plans for their schools. These plans have the buy-in of many key players at the state and local level. And though Washington was not funded under the first two rounds of Race to the Top, your state leaders have a blueprint for success.

I saw the power of one elected official’s leadership when I was the superintendent of Chicago public schools. After Illinois created mayoral control in Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley united the city around a comprehensive effort to reform schools. The business community supported efforts to recruit and retain highly-effective teachers and turn around the lowest-performing schools. Public safety, the health department, parks and recreation and other city agencies supported our work. Through the mayor’s leadership — and because of his personal accountability to voters — we generated support for our work for education reform and saw dramatic improvements in student outcomes.

In Washington state, Gov. Chris Gregoire has a plan to consolidate the state’s education infrastructure under a state secretary of education. The plan would unite a bureaucracy of multiple education agencies into a seamless system. It will develop a single agency to guide students from early learning to higher education. The secretary will hold each part of the system accountable and, in turn, be held accountable for students’ progress. If students are transitioning into high school without the skills to succeed, the secretary will be able to address the shortcomings from early learning programs through 8th grade and hold those schools accountable for results. A seat in the governor’s cabinet will empower the secretary to work with colleagues at the highest level of state government to create comprehensive support systems students need to learn, like public health and social services.

These are important changes for Washington and other states to consider. Too often, states divide responsibilities for education across several departments or agencies. Early learning programs are in one department, elementary and secondary in another, and higher education in yet one more. While each of these agencies has their own expertise and unique perspective, they tend to engage in turf battles instead of spending their energy focused on improving outcomes for children. By bringing all of these functions under a secretary of education, a state can sustain momentum for reforms that will benefit students.

Leaders in Olympia and across the country will make decisions about the governance model that’s best for their state. But they should be guided by a few overriding principles: governance structures should reduce bureaucracy, hold adults accountable and unify citizens around improving results for children.

I am grateful that state leaders across the country are stepping up to the challenge of reforming our schools. In his State of the Union address, President Obama said America needs to out-educate, out-innovate, and out-build the rest of the world. With the courage and commitment of governors and other elected leaders, we’ll reform our schools and secure America’s long-term economic prosperity.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education