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Obama links education reform to economic recovery

President Barack Obama greets Keiry Herrera at a No Child Left Behind event in Washington
President Barack Obama greets Keiry Herrera at a No Child Left Behind event in Washington

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Young people in the United States are falling behind their overseas peers in reading, math and science, President Barack Obama said on Saturday, calling education reform an essential part of economic recovery.

In his weekly radio and video address, Obama said as many as a quarter of American students are not finishing high school and far too few young people are getting college degrees.

"It is an undeniable fact that countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Businesses will hire wherever the highly skilled, highly trained workers are located," the Democrat said. "We have to pick up our game and raise our standards."

With the 2012 campaign for the presidency heating up, Obama is speaking increasingly often about education, a key issue for his political base.

His $447 billion job creation plan includes money for hiring teachers and school repairs, and on Friday he announced a loosening of "No Child Left Behind," a decade-old education measure introduced by former President George W. Bush that seeks to hold schools accountable for students' performance.

"No Child" has been widely criticized for being inflexible, requiring teachers to adhere to a narrow curriculum targeted mostly at ensuring that students pass standardized tests.

"Experience has taught us that the law has some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping them," Obama said, making plain that education will be one of his key campaign issues into next November's vote.

"These problems have been obvious to parents and educators all over this country for years. But for years, Congress has failed to fix them. So now, I will," he said.

The president's job approval ratings have been falling on perceptions that he is a weak leader, particularly when it comes to healing the economy.

His rival Republicans have argued that Obama's stimulus spending put the country into fiscal trouble without making a big enough dent in unemployment, which remains above 9 percent. Much of the financial pressure U.S. schools are under reflects strained budgets at the state level.

(Reporting by Laura MacInnis and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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