The United States economy grew by 2.7% in the last quarter and yet its citizens lost 352,000 jobs in June (221,000) & July (131,000). Long-term unemployment has reached record highs with nearly a million and a half people out of work for at least 99 weeks and economists are beginning to wonder aloud whether our nation has begun to grapple with structural unemployment.
There are many reasons why the United States faces this potential: our recent financial calamity wiped away billions of accumulated wealth and job creating capacity; technological advancement creates efficiencies and makes human beings less necessary for certain work; increased competitiveness among developing nations means greater capacity for labor at reduced cost; and consumers are spending less, paying down debt, and saving more.
While the combination of these factors is pernicious, perhaps the greatest factor influencing long-term employment is our diminished ability to provide citizens with an exceptional education. Our college graduation rate is now 12th among developed nations and according to Memphis City Schools only 6% of students graduating from our city’s public schools are college ready.
In a world where economic opportunity is inextricably linked to educational attainment, the most important policy objective for our elected leaders is to dramatically improve public education. An immediate opportunity to lead presents itself with the pending debate over Tennessee’s new standards.
Heretofore, students have been able to answer as few as 36% of questions correct to be considered proficient – our new standards will more closely approximate actual proficiency and lead to a reassessment of how all students in Tennessee are being prepared for college, the workforce, and informed citizenship.
Initial reports are not promising. According to the state of Tennessee, only 50% of students are passing our new standards and only 25% of 8th graders are proficient in math. You can be sure if numbers are this low state-wide, they will be even lower in Memphis.
Despite this, embracing our new state standards and proficiency cut scores is vital because we have an obligation to tell our students the truth about the overall quality of education they receive. The importance of this truth-telling came home in stark relief when I was an 8th grade language arts and social studies teacher in New Orleans with Teach For America. A young woman was valedictorian of her high school but could not pass the state’s graduation exam. Though low test scores may inflict damage upon self-esteem, we should be more concerned with whether our students are able to compete in a global job market. No employer will care that your public school system could have done a better job, they will simply care whether you can add value to their business.
Embracing the new state standards is also a necessary step towards greater public engagement with education reforms like those proposed in the Memphis City Schools and Gates Foundation’s Teacher Effectiveness Initiative and Tennessee’s recent First to the Top legislation. My reasoning here is simple: you do not relentlessly pursue solutions until you have fully embraced a problem. Many would argue that our community is aware of our educational challenges and are deeply engaged but take a moment to think about where some of our major political leaders stand on any education issue (a comprehensive human capital strategy, charter schools, accountability, pay for performance, or even our new state standards). I took some time to study our major executive and legislative leader’s websites and most make no mention of education.
There may be no political upside in being explicit about education reform on a campaign website and it would be correct to point out that our mayors and congressman do not directly run our school system but I submit that allowing our elected officials to take a pass on our city’s most important issue is simple proof that our collective engagement could be stronger. Down the road in Nashville, Mayor Karl Dean, has offered a model of political engagement in education reform: raising money for Teach For America in Nashville, launching a state-wide charter school incubator, testifying before our legislature on behalf of charter schools, and as recently as today partnering with Metro Nashville Public Schools to improve teacher retention. We could ask our leaders to do the same.
Such engagement is vital because with an incredibly bleak economic picture, an increased focus on achievement and accountability in our schools, there may be reticence to follow through on many of our recently passed reforms. Simply put, if performance does not improve, there will be tangible consequences such as state takeover and job losses for educators who do not perform at a high level. One need look no further than the public furor over Michelle Rhee’s dismissal of 241 ineffective teachers as evidence of the storm clouds on our horizon.
Despite the challenges ahead our entire community (including our political leadership) should champion our new state standards because the stakes for our city and our children are high. Consider a 9 year old student attending Memphis City Schools who is living in poverty (as 86% of our students are) and is, already, several years behind grade level. If statistics for this student play out, he may be among the 65% who graduate from MCS but will only graduate with the knowledge and skills of an 8th grader living in wealthier circumstances. If this student is then fortunate enough to go to college, he will be so far behind that he will eventually drop out and face an ever less kind job market. This then becomes an entire life of economic marginality – 50 years of waiting for the other shoe to drop on your job, or working several jobs to make ends meet. If this young man has children, his children will also have fewer opportunities at a high-quality education and thus the unholy cycle perpetuates.
Now, multiply that by an entire generation of public school students, only 6% of whom are college ready – can Memphis thrive as a city with this as our educational landscape?
Pay attention, then, to the proclamations of public officials in the coming months when test score data begins to reflect our actual student performance. Politicians who resist the new standards are forcing Memphis into a long-term existential crisis. Our responsibility as citizens will be to ensure that we instead pursue bold solutions.
Over the course of a lifetime, college graduates can expect to earn $1,000,000 more than high school graduates. This, in turn, leads to a number of private and public goods – more jobs; more investment for innovative business ideas; greater and sustainable home ownership; greater public revenue and a decreased need for it; and a likely decline in poverty, crime, and infant mortality.
There is hope if we summon the will to look unflinchingly at the facts and embrace our new state standards. Our kids are capable if we have the will to follow through.