BEFORE Americans throw up their hands in despair over the nation's education system and how poorly it compares to overseas competitors, it's important to remember that what each state public education system is trying to do is unprecedented in human history: to educate massive numbers of children from all economic backgrounds, from every ethnic, racial and religious group, those native born and those who arrived just last month.
It is a mammoth, and, yes, noble undertaking that no other nation has even attempted. In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, more than 80 languages and dialects are spoken by its 625,000 students. So all those comparisons of the United States to Japan really ought not to be quite so facile and, truly, unfair.
That said, in an increasingly borderless world it is inevitable that such comparisons will be made. Beyond the moral arguments for education improvements, Americans must face the fact that the nation simply can't afford to be stupid. Thus, President Bush's decision to step out front -- using his bully pulpit to focus national attention on the need for better and more effective schools -- is, in the long run, the most important step he has taken as president. It is, as children would put it plainly, a "big" baby step, but not yet a giant step.