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Education reform is the key to sustainable economic recovery

A consulting buddy of mine used to say that "there are three modes of existence in life and in economic development – you can flourish, cope or die."


This is the pickle that both the U.S. and North Carolina find themselves in today as the recession takes its toll in the form of permanent layoffs, rising joblessness and falling  incomes and tax receipts.

Our failures to adapt our schooling and training systems for the 21st century are hindering our quest for a more resilient workforce and a better, more sustainable, and more widely shared standard of living. In short, we're coping and staving off death rather than thriving.

A recent book, The Race Between Education and Technology, by economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz helps make the case.

With a careful use of historical data, the authors show how the U.S. followed a unique path to development and economic preeminence by rapidly building a comprehensive education system.  Starting in the 19th century, that system turned what was once the privilege of the elite into the birthright of the masses.
By investing in people, the country provided its citizenry with both mobility and the globe's highest level of per capita income.

But this virtuous cycle, based on a democratic ethos, a lack of gender bias, an open and forgiving structure of opportunity, public funding, decentralization, and a separation of church and state, stagnated in the seventies. High school graduation rates stopped rising and college completion rates fell behind other developed economies.

Perhaps most notable among the shortcomings in the current system is the fact that our schools are too divorced from the workplace. Students do not get a real sense of careers and their requirements for entrance. The "soft skills" associated with teamwork, interaction, leadership, work ethic, and a sense of responsibility are typically not taught, at least not within a career and workplace context. Fears of "tracking" students have hindered reformers from making jobs more real and preparing students for the world outside. 

All this weakens the incentive to excel and regard school as important and relevant. Most parents and students are not well informed about recent strong trends associating schooling and skills with rising income and the utter stagnation of wages of both dropouts and those with just a high school diploma. Too many schools offer just a watered-down comprehensive, college-bound curriculum.

So what can we do to regain our footing and do more than merely cope? Here are a few key suggestions:

1)      Schools must have greater funding, greater freedom and higher expectations. This means that not only must principals and schools have greater power to run their affairs, (teach as they see fit, hire and fire, etc…) but that classrooms and schools must be smaller. Thus, at the same time you are devolving some power to the school site, you must establish a set of internationally competitive measurable outcomes that permit the state, the community, and the parent to monitor progress. These standards should apply to all schools.

2)      There must be substantial progress in eliminating the large disparity in skill attainment between minorities and whites. Neglect of this problem – benign or otherwise – simply won't do.

3)      Businesses should "adopt" schools, spend more time in them, get principals and teachers in the workplace to learn as well, and be a source of internships and part-time jobs.

4)      "Soft'" skills like problem-solving, team work, and reliability should be taught with a workplace "spin."  School band, community service, and clubs can be excellent venues for promoting such skills.

5)      Youth enterprise and financial literacy should be common subjects as well and can be taught as part of math and writing assignments.

6)      Schools should experiment with curricula that have an explicit career learning dimension. The University of North Carolina has developed a successful example for use in predominantly low-income schools.

7)      Schools should explore the adoption of a new condition and/or test for graduation that assesses whether students have the foundational core skills (like reading for comprehension, reading for locating information, and applied math) that would provide employers with a much more accurate idea of a student's prospects for success than a diploma. Such a test could also be used in preparing objective job profiles that scale the specific skills for a specific job in a specific firm.

In short, if the current economic hard times have taught us anything, it is that America must chart a new path. If the nation is to do more than cope in the 21st Century and truly flourish, it simply must reestablish its broad commitment to universal and relevant education. To be ready to earn, all of our students must be ready to learn.

William Schweke is a Senior Fellow at the Durham office of the national economic policy think tank. CFED [1].