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By Rex Tillerson
With headlines announcing unemployment rates above 8% in some parts of the country, many people I talk to are surprised to learn that jobs by the hundreds of thousands remain vacant.
The reason for that is clear: American employers do not have enough applicants with adequate skills, especially in science, technology, engineering and math. The "STEM-related" positions that U.S. industry needs to fill are not just for biochemists, biophysicists and engineers. More and more jobs are applying cutting-edge technologies and now demand deeper knowledge of math and science in positions that most people don't think of as STEM-related, including machinists, electricians, auto techs, medical technicians, plumbers and pipefitters.
In fact, after more than 30 years working in the energy industry, and now as I work with business leaders from every sector of the American economy, I can attest that your high-school math teacher was right: Algebra matters.
These days the energy industry tests for math and science aptitude when hiring for entry-level positions. Our industry is seeking to fill positions that range from mechanics and lab support to blend and process technicians. But many applicants fail these basic tests, losing out on opportunities for good pay and good benefits.
The U.S. military is also being forced to turn away applicants because of a lack of preparation in math, science and other subjects. Each year, approximately 30% of high-school graduates who take the Armed Forces entrance exam fail the test.
Even more concerning, many of these educational shortfalls are apparent before students reach high school. According to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Process, only 35% of eighth graders performed at grade level or above in math.
As a nation, we must unite in recognizing the mounting evidence that the U.S. is falling behind international competitors in producing students ready for 21st-century jobs. According to the most recent Program for International Assessment, U.S. students rank 14th in the world in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math—and the trend line is moving in the wrong direction.
We have an opportunity to reverse this trend but it will take setting the right priorities. That starts with establishing high standards. It means leaders from government and business, and parents, need to defend the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted wholly or in part by dozens of states in recent years but are increasingly under attack from across the political spectrum.
These voluntary, state-driven standards are a set of expectations for the knowledge and skills that students from kindergarten to 12th grade need to master for college and career readiness. Some oppose the standards, complaining that they undermine the autonomy of teachers; others decry the standards as a takeover of local schools by big government.
The criticism is misguided. The Common Core State Standards are based on the best international research. They are built on the standards used by the most effective education systems around the world, including Singapore, Finland, Canada and the U.K. The standards are also designed to allow each state to make its own decisions regarding the curriculum, technology and lesson plans to be used in local schools.
In other words, the standards stipulate what we want all students to know and be able to do, but each state retains the explicit authority to determine how it teaches its students. The standards are a tool to help educators, not a straitjacket for them.
A major benefit of the Common Core State Standards is that they encourage students to analyze and apply critical reasoning skills to the texts they are reading and the math problems they are solving. These are the capabilities that students need as they prepare for high-skill jobs.
We need to raise expectations at every grade level so that, for instance, students who do well in math in lower grades are spurred to take algebra and more advanced math. But we need high standards to drive efforts to improve educational outcomes in every subject.
With these education standards under attack in many states where they have been adopted or are being considered, the Common Core needs support now more than ever if America is going to reverse its education decline and prepare its young people to compete in today's dynamic global economy. To abandon the standards is to endanger America's ability to create the technologies that change the world for the better.
The Common Core State Standards are the path to renewed competitiveness, and they deserve to be at the center of every state's effort to improve the education—and future—of every American child.
Mr. Tillerson is the chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp. and the chair of the Business Roundtable's Education & Workforce Committee.
A version of this article appeared September 6, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal.