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Education and the Future

A tectonic shift is occurring in America’s education system. Common core standards have been accepted by 45 states and are now being recognized by many as the country’s best chance for a vibrant economic future. This flies in the face of budgetary limits and the narrow views most legislatures demonstrate regarding funding for education. While the business community and more enlightened legislators seem to understand that the 50 million children now in the nation’s K-12 educational system are the foundation of the future, others seem more comfortable with substandard test scores and achievement far below that of many other countries. This narrow provincial view is eroding America’s options for long-term economic vitality and creating limited opportunities for our young people to compete in a global marketplace.

The fourth annual NBC News Education Nation Summit was held October 6-8 at The New York Public Library. Moderated by Brian Williams, the Teacher Town Hall portion aired live on MSNBC on Sunday, October 6 and was extraordinarily powerful. To say the least, the 2-hour fact-based program was moving but probably left many viewers with feelings of anger, frustration and exasperation. From virtually any perspective, as with many other current challenges, many of the country’s educational troubles lead directly back to the Congress and state legislatures, neither of which seem enlightened enough to triage school funding to achieve the greatest gain.

It is clear that teachers are spending on average from $150 to $400 a year out of their own pockets on classroom materials due to state and local funding shortages. And, when compared to similarly academically prepared and continually educated professionals, they are paid around 30 percent less. Many districts are wholly unprepared to implement common core programs due to insufficient funding for materials and teacher training. Yet, the business community has acknowledged that national standards leading to greater skill acquisition are absolutely essential if this country is to remain competitive.

A dominant question pertains to the nation’s future workforce. With 78 million Baby Boomers either retired or heading in that direction, workforce planning and development has become a Tier I priority. However, it must be considered in concert with K-12 preparation if we are to develop the technical skills required for a globally competitive workforce. U.S. schools are losing over a million students a year before they graduate. This is an enormous number of non-educated individuals entering a workforce that demands rapidly escalating knowledge and intricate new skills. Even though the national on-time graduation rate (74.9%) is the highest in 40 years, there is a long way to go.

From a purely selfish and performance-driven view, it would seem wise to invest in education if, for no other reason, to access the knowledge and skills required to operate in complex, technology-dependent organizations. But investment requires understanding what teaching and educating is all about, which is curious because all of us have experienced the entire educational process. Even with profound personal experience, few seem to grasp that teaching is about relationships and connecting with each unique student. It is not about rote drills and introducing technology. All the new technology will not improve learning if a student is unwilling to invest the time or has been raised by parents who do not support the educational process by reading to their children, helping with homework, and generally reinforcing good study habits. It is even more essential that parents believe that education is important and valued in the family.

It is important to realize that teaching is not a program but a process. Just as important is the understanding that teaching means caring about the ultimate success of our children. Teachers don’t teach math, English, or science…they teach children, and every child is unique, complex and worth individual attention. Unfortunately, our system is becoming driven by the belief that technology is the panacea that will save the educational system by introducing a new learning environment that creates a more modern, hyper-prepared graduate. So far, the exact opposite is proving true. Children still need individual attention, nurturing, counseling, guidance, encouragement and mentoring that only professionally prepared and experienced teachers can deliver in concert with family support.

We must keep in mind that, as one teacher noted during the MSNBC program, ‘We are not going to test our children to greatness. We are going to teach our children to greatness.’ By using emerging tools, such as the Kahn Academy, teachers may be able to provide more individual attention. The conundrum is that integrating technology requires constant training and investment. It requires a broad master plan with a vision of what we are trying to accomplish. In addition to teachers, three tiers of education are required: parents, communities, and students. It must be an integrated system with broad support and financial backing. Even more critical is that legislatures and Congress are the wrong institutions to create policies and regulations. These must come from the educational community, which, until recently was reluctant to embrace performance reviews and higher practice standards. This is rapidly changing and will continue to require patience, innovation and vision.

The future depends on educated people who can compete and prosper in an evolving world. Is the U.S. ready to refine, upgrade and promote its educational system? There are good signs, but financial support is sorely needed. Before this happens, I predict that more integrated private and public sector involvement is essential. It’s time to define the desired educational outcomes needed to meet predicted challenges and build a system to suit. Moreover, we need responsible citizens who understand freedom and know their history, geography, science, English and math. We can build a remarkable future through education but must begin now. The title ‘Education Nation’ is worth adopting. Becoming such a nation will require much more effort and commitment.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out three times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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