05/14/2013 11:47 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Education and a Path to the Middle Class

The future of America's middle class looks clouded right now. With a steady decline in median household income, a growing number of Americans dropping out of the workforce, and approximately 6 million young Americans largely disconnected from mainstream society (not in school, unemployed), the facts are alarming. When you factor in a contentious political environment that appears paralyzed, there is a growing perception that a middle class lifestyle will be unachievable for many Americans.

As bad as the picture looks - and arguably the threat to the middle class is America's greatest long-term challenge - there are a number of actions we can take to help address the problem, to include adopting a fiscal policy that grows the economy and generates middle class jobs. But the most significant action we can take to advance the health of the nation's middle class is to dramatically improve the skill level of our workforce. And on a grand scale. To do this, we not only need to revitalize and refocus our public education system. but also need to establish a direct link between education, the development of relevant skills, and the contemporary job market. In the process we can redefine a path to the middle class that Americans can recognize and follow.

Our public education system is clearly inadequate for the world we live in. About 1 out of 5 students drop out of high school and many of those that graduate do not possess the skills required in 21st century middle class jobs. Additionally, in a period where changing technologies and a globalized workforce are continually disrupting the job market, we do not have a means to effectively link education, skills, and jobs at the community/city level. This job/skill mismatch is one of the reasons our unemployment rate has remained high during the recent recovery while businesses report that they cannot find skilled workers in certain fields. And it will only get worse as we expand modern manufacturing and other high tech fields.

There is no single magic solution that will address this set of complex issues. School reform has been a popular topic for decades and various communities and organizations across the country have experimented with different initiatives. And a number of states and cities have experimented with linkages to community colleges and local businesses. But the problem is severe and we need to address it with a greater sense of urgency and on a greater scale.

To do this, we should consider an effort that breaks the challenge into manageable topics. Here are 5 proposed action areas:

1 - Establish recognizable paths to a middle class job - Communities and schools need to define and articulate the various paths a student can take that will lead to a first world job. Defining the paths should be a collaborative effort between the larger community, school district, and schools employing a public/private partnership outlined below. Within this context, a public high school student would follow one of several paths - attendance at a 4 year university, attendance at a 2 year community or technical college, participation in a vocational or apprenticeship program, participation in a narrowly defined on-site course (like Devbootcamp), participation in an online certificate program, or movement directly into the workforce. At some point in high school students in unison with their parents would identify their desired path. As part of this effort communities through the public/private partnership need to track another set of metrics beyond graduation rates - percent who continue post-high school study or training, employment rates ages 18-24, wage rates ages 18-24, and business community assessments of positions that cannot be filled by the workforce based on skill deficiencies.

2 - Establish community/city public-private partnerships - These partnerships would bring together school district leadership, business leaders, leaders in educational technology, social support organizations, community colleges and universities, vocational schools, foundations, volunteer organizations, local media, and other relevant organizations. The role of the partnership would be to support and augment the school system on a significant scale. Actions would include assisting in implementing/funding educational technology tools, generating a major volunteer effort to address certain deficiencies, and - most significantly - formally establish the linkage between jobs, required/emergent job skills, and education in that community.

3 - Solve the dropout epidemic - Our national high school graduation rate should be at least 90 percent. We should not accept anything less, to include across all demographic groups. Right now it is about 80% nationally, with a number of major urban areas in the 60 percent range. Dropping out of high school in contemporary America means you will likely live at the poverty level. A number of complex issues lead to dropping out, but many are reasonably understood. To help address these, communities through the Public/private partnerships should solicit volunteers on the scale required to serve as mentors and teacher assistants for select grade schools and high schools. They should also use the partnerships to support other efforts such as helping establish and run after school activities, summer programs, and other extracurricular activities that assist low income students with skill development.

4 - Improve effectiveness of schools - We need to employ various methods to improve the effectiveness of elementary and secondary schools. These methods will likely vary from community to community and state to state based on the local environment and unique needs of the particular school system. Examples include:

- Integrating digital, face-to-face instruction, and other emerging forms of learning to address the different pace at which students learn, deal with varying needs, allow teachers to be mentors as opposed to lecturers, and help make education more learning-centric. This area has the potential to radically change how we approach education, skill development, critical thinking, and life-long learning.

- Elevating teaching as a profession. We should establish programs to recruit and attract the best talent in America and drive a cultural change in how we see teachers. We need to ultimately get to the point where we place them on the same professional level as lawyers and engineers.

- Employing charter schools and use vouchers to provide parents some level of school choice where the situation requires them. Local school districts, communities, and states should decide when to use these to address certain deficiencies.

- Facilitating life-long learning and skill development - The pace of technological change and the growth of skilled workforces around the world will require most of us to continually upgrade our skills. Especially if we want to lead in "smart" manufacturing. The Empowered UCLA Extension program is a great example of one way to approach this in a structured manner. Our high schools should introduce students to the concept and the need.

5 - Solicit help from the cultural drivers of contemporary society - At the national, state and community level we need to solicit help from the movie, TV, music, professional sports, and computer gaming industries to reinforce the positive aspects of learning and achieving in school. And assistance in articulating the paths and opportunities to a middle class job. These entities have a major direct influence on students and they should be integrated into the effort.

Defining a contemporary path to a middle class job and linking job skill development to our public education system in communities across the nation will not be easy. We will need to work past a series of difficult issues, accept new ideas, experiment in some cases, and sustain a full court press for at least a generation. It will also require a level of support and involvement from businesses, universities, community colleges, volunteer organizations and individual volunteers on a scale we have not seen in the past. But failure to address the problem now will result in larger numbers of disconnected youth in our cities, a stagnant median household income, and a decline in our middle class.

Jack Gardner is a native of Columbus, Ohio. He retired from the Army in May 2012 after 35 years of service.