WASHINGTON, D.C. | September 29, 2010 -
The following op-ed was published in The Hill on September 29, 2010
According to the so-called experts, the Great Recession that began during the winter of 2007 ended in June of 2009. This should be welcome news, but many Americans find it hard to believe. More than 14.8 million workers are still unemployed, and 27 states recently reported an increase in unemployment.
Earlier this month, the Department of Labor issued another bleak jobs report, which was greeted with understandable anxiety about rising unemployment and the loss of 54,000 jobs. What failed to make headlines were the statistics showing the correlation between employment levels and workers’ educational achievement. The numbers are startling and should serve as yet another reminder of the urgent need to fix our broken education system.
The American people have made jobs their No. 1 priority, and their elected representatives in Congress should do the same. Immediate solutions are required, but we must also look to the future to ensure tomorrow’s workers can lead in a global economy and are prepared to weather future economic downturns. When you scratch beneath the surface, you discover education is a jobs issue.
Unemployment among workers without a high school diploma now stands at 14 percent — well above the 9.6 percent national average. Those who have completed high school but have gone no further in their education have about a one in 10 chance of being unemployed. In contrast, the current unemployment rate among workers with at least a college degree is just 4.6 percent.
And it is not surprising to learn income is similarly dependent upon education. In 2009, workers without a high school diploma earned less than $23,000, while workers with a bachelor’s degree earned nearly three times that amount ($62,394). Money can’t buy happiness, but it can help build economic security, which remains outside the reach of many who drop out of high school.
These statistics underscore the rewards of education and the challenges facing workers who do not advance academically. That is why the current state of our education system is so troubling.
The high-school dropout rate for 2007 was 30 percent — a staggering figure and one that unfortunately is far higher in some districts. The Nation’s Report Card, published by the National Center for Education Statistics, reveals that 27 percent of eighth-grade students cannot perform basic math. Thirty-three percent of fourth graders fall below basic reading levels.
This has all occurred despite a substantial and increasing commitment of taxpayer resources to education. When adjusted for inflation, taxpayers invested $5,593 for every student in 1970. Today, that investment has more than doubled. Sadly, student achievement remains flat.
As the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) highlighted in a recent study, after 900 days in the classroom and $50,000 of taxpayer money, a “child from a minority or economically disadvantaged family has basically a 50-50 chance of being able to read by the end of the fourth grade.” This proves we cannot measure our commitment to education in dollars spent. We should instead focus on the academic results achieved.
Local communities, and the nation as a whole, bear the burden when young adults enter the workforce without the skills needed to compete in a global economy. Tax revenues decline while the costs of government support programs rise.
Children, however, ultimately pay the heaviest price for the failure of our education system. ALEC reports students who do not succeed in the classroom are more prone to engage in criminal activity and live in poverty. They also face lower life expectancy.
The good news is the tide might be turning against the status quo. Thanks to the actions of dedicated reformers, concerned citizens and some talented filmmakers, a conversation is spreading across the country and instigating a groundswell of support for a new approach to education in our country.
Meaningful education reform is possible. Many states and local communities are already moving forward with a renewed commitment to accountability, parental involvement, results-based hiring and school choice. Educational entrepreneurs from the classroom to the school board are driving reform through the innovation, creativity and determination that defines American exceptionalism.
The quality of our schools will determine the competitiveness of our workforce, the success of our economy and the future happiness of our children. Education is a jobs issue, and the parents, teachers, school board members and state leaders who shape our schools should treat them with the same urgency.