Jobs are top of mind for most Americans, not only those needing work to help their families make ends meet, but also politicians who hope to keep their jobs on Election Day 2012. As many of us ask, "Where are the jobs?" an equally important question is, "Where are the workers?"
Business leaders who have asked that question don't like the answer. According to recent data from The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018, our economy will fall 3 million employees short of the 22 million college-educated workers it needs to thrive. The bottom line is that millions of high school students who should be acquiring the education and skills that will enable them to lead the 21st century global economy are being shortchanged by America's public school system. Members of Congress have the opportunity to reverse that trend, and if they don't take action, our nation's future is in serious jeopardy.
A chorus of voices is now unified in challenging Congress to act immediately to ensure that our public education system truly works for all students through the long-awaited re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
The Campaign for High School Equity (CHSE), a diverse coalition of leading civil rights and education advocacy organizations primarily representing students of color, recently unveiled its Plan for Success to guarantee that all high school students graduate ready for college or the workforce regardless of race, ethnicity, income, or ZIP code. The plan is a comprehensive framework for the strong federal leadership that is necessary to make this a reality.
When it comes to preparing our young people to meet the demands of the 21st century workforce, there are at least two things we know for certain:
- Quality teaching outweighs students' social and economic background as the single most important factor influencing student academic outcomes, including graduation.
- Strong school accountability is essential to ensuring academic success and lowering dropout rates.
ESEA must also guarantee a well-designed accountability system that ensures public access to high-quality and transparent academic performance and graduation data to make certain that schools are serving our children well. The purpose of strong accountability is not to unfairly penalize schools, but rather to identify low-performing schools and help them improve. Our accountability system, therefore, must require schools to accurately and publicly report the academic progress of all students, including racial and ethnic subgroups, and it must place graduation rates on equal footing with college- and work-readiness in determining school quality.
In order to make up the anticipated shortfall of highly educated workers, America must graduate a half million more high school students each year. Students of color are the fastest growing segment of the nation's future workforce. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, by cutting the dropout rate of students of color and Native students in half, we can generate more than $4.5 billion in lifetime personal earnings and add $412 million in state tax revenue each year. Clearly, we have a tremendous stake in ensuring that all high school students have access to a rigorous and high quality education.
ESEA has not been reauthorized since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. Every year that goes by without re-authorization is another year wasted--another year in which 1.3 million students leave high school without the education they need to succeed in the workforce and serve as informed participants in our democracy. One wonders exactly how many years we have left to give them the education on which our nation's prosperity and stability surely depends before the opportunity disappears--and we all pay the price.