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How We Can Propel Ourselves Out of “Educational Stagnation”

The United States has an opportunity to make a significant impact on the career and college readiness of the nation’s children—now let’s see if we can take it.

The most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores demonstrate that America’s students failed to improve at all on their reading, science, and math performances, resulting in yet another slip in the international rankings. The 2012 results show that compared to 2009, U.S. teenagers fell from 25th to 31st in math; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These saddening statistics should give us all pause—for some reason our kids aren’t able to make much headway while other countries continue to outperform them. (Click to read another JFF blog about PISA results.)

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laments that the country is locked into the status quo. Duncan described the PISA results as “straightforward and stark: it is a picture of educational stagnation.”

These results also contribute to the debate on America’s ability to compete in a global economy. We know that employers continue to lament over the “skill gap”—that new entrants to the workforce are lacking the skills needed to fill available jobs. These skills are both technical (e.g., IT, STEM, advanced manufacturing) and applied (e.g., exercising professionalism, strong work ethics, creativity, and critical thinking).

So what opportunity do we have to propel our country out of this stagnation? Obviously a continuation of our current education model has not and will not result in the progress necessary for our kids. What the country needs is a reexamination and re-imagination of the education and employment pipeline. And we can start by looking at our teachers.

Before I am accused of unfairly singling out teachers as the only lever in the system that should be changed, allow me to explain. An upcoming demographic shift will allow us to influence teaching methodology in a far-reaching and large-scale manner. More than half the teachers in today's workforce will reach retirement age within the next 10 years. Gallup estimates that schools in the United States will need to hire about 2 million teachers over the next decade. This changeover in staff gives us an unparalleled opportunity to influence how our children learn. Think of the system’s ability to try new methods, strategies, and concepts!

Employers should also take this opportunity to share with teachers which skills are in high-demand when looking for potential employees. Employers can contribute to sculpting a more skills-based teaching process, while teachers’ colleges should evaluate what methods need to be developed to engage this new generation of both teachers and learners.

The community at large would also greatly benefit from embracing this spirit of cooperation. We need to steer clear of the mentality of “this isn’t the way I learned,” which has ruined many a good innovation. If we collaboratively seize this opportunity to deliver the skills needed for competing in the global marketplace, we can make significant strides in improving student outcomes on global measures and set our country’s youth on track to professional careers.