America’s economic prosperity is at stake. For those of us committed to economic development, this is serious. Our future is in jeopardy. We have it within our power, however, to mitigate the risk. Between 2040 and 2060 projections from the US Census Bureau data are that the US becomes a majority-minority country. The state of Arizona does so by 2025; California, New Mexico and Texas are already majority-minority. It is now clearer than ever that our future prosperity will depend upon the minority population’s preparation for the workforce. This more diverse workforce is the future of American business labor.
The issue of workforce preparation and education was thoroughly addressed a few years ago by a Commission appointed by then Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings. In meeting her with other university presidents, I was impressed with her understanding of the linkages among higher education, K-12 and America’s labor force. The Commission’s final report found that
America’s national capacity for excellence, innovation and leadership in higher education will be central to our ability to sustain economic growth and social cohesiveness. Our colleges and universities will be a key source of the human and intellectual capital needed to increase workforce productivity and growth.
In that report and in previous, preliminary draft reports, the Commission linked our future economic prosperity to the capacity of K-12 education to prepare students who were ready for college at graduation. Readiness for college in math, language and science is essentially the same for readiness for work. A major effort to raise high school standards ensued with the focus on college and work readiness.
As we approach a majority-minority US population by mid-century, the failure of our educational system becomes ever more alarming. A college education is increasingly essential for job preparation, and completion of high school is a prerequisite. Yet, too many minority students in our K-12 schools are still not succeeding. Across the US only 58% of Hispanics and 57% of Blacks graduated from high school while 85% of whites graduated on time in 2013. An alarmingly low number of Native Americans – only 49% – graduated on time.
There are policy initiatives that we can adopt in order to change the dismal future that appears to lie ahead. I will mention only a few:
- Adoption of higher state and local standards that are linked directly to college and work readiness. The Common Core, despite the controversy, is focused on raising standards and increasing college and work readiness;
- Access to private and charter schools for minority and low-income students. States like Arizona have led the way with charter schools and the introduction of rigorous reauthorization processes by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools;
- Higher teacher pay for schools that are remote and rural, e.g., schools on Indian reservations and low performing schools in city centers; and
- Adoption of Move on When Ready, a program that the Center for the Future of Arizona has embraced from the National Center for Education and the Economy.
Educational policy choices are tough to implement. There is good reason. We experienced K-12 education, and we have strong feelings about it. But a failure to adopt innovations, a failure to introduce policy changes, and a failure to invest public money in selective policy changes is a mistake. We need to alter what appears to be a future of limited economic prosperity. It will become too late by mid-century. We still have a chance.