Her Name is Rio …

In recent weeks, we’ve spent a great deal of time talking about economic stimuli, bailouts, and investing in the future.  We talk about what is necessary to compete in the 21st century workforce, what skills our kids need to acquire to compete, and how we as a nation stack up against other nations.  We look at our major industries, wondering which will thrive and which will still just exist a decade or two from now.

Lost in the urgent needs of addressing the very real economic crises of the past few months are the urgent needs of meeting the workforce demands of the next decade.  Are our schools preparing students for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century?  Are we offering the skills students need to compete, both locally and globally?  Do students and families even understand that the jobs of today may no longer be around next year, let alone come graduation day?
So in this discussion of stimulus and reconstruction, how do we ensure that our current K-12 systems are re-skilling to meet the needs of our economy?  How do we ensure that public education does not merely operate in a vacuum, and that it is relevant to the to the economic and community needs of our nation.
Over at The Washington Post, Joshua Partlow writes about specific steps taken to equip today’s students, the future workforce, with the skills and knowledgebase they need to succeed.  How business is stepping in to provide technical and career-focused instruction so students can capitalize on the opportunities of tomorrow.  The wrinkle — Partlow is writing about recent developments in Brazil, not in the United States.  The full story can be found at: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/08/AR2008120803747.html?hpid=topnews   It is a fascinating story, essentially positioning Brazil’s industry in the role of U.S. community college.
As we discuss what our nation is doing to bail out our businesses, shouldn’t we also be talking about what our businesses can do to better assist our K-12 systems?  We tell our kids that they cannot gain meaningful employment without a high school diploma and some form of public education.  Shouldn’t we better engage our local businesses to ensure that high school diploma is relevant and of value in the local economy?  Shouldn’t we better partner with industry to make courses more relevant and to show the pathways from K-12 education to interesting jobs and fascinating careers?  Should we see these public-private partnerships as real partnerships when it comes to goals and instruction, and not just partnerships related to scoreboards and yearbook ads?
For years, Eduflack has taken flack for the belief that our K-12 (and postsecondary) systems bear responsibility for preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s workforce.  The concern I regularly hear is that our schools are not trade schools, they are not training programs.  They are intended, critics say, to provide a broad-based education, a liberal arts education, to get kids thinking and considering.  Once they complete those basics, then students can begin pursuing career paths.  Unfortunately, by then, it is usually too late.  Students lack the foundational courses and knowledge they need to pursue careers.  They lose opportunities to use their high school years to study relevant courses.  And they close off pathways before they even get a few steps down the road.
Actions like those taken by “mining giant” Vale in Brazil demonstrate that others are building a better mousetrap.  We know where our skill gaps are today.  We know where our skill gaps are going to be tomorrow.  Shouldn’t we have business and education working hand-in-hand to fill those gaps now, so we aren’t scrambling at the point of maximum urgency?
One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for STEM (science-tech-engineering-math) education is because STEM begins to answer that question. When we look at states that are doing good work in STEM education — such as Minnesota, Colorado, and Pennsylvania — they succeed because of three key reasons.  First, it is an integrated education effort that includes K-12 and higher education.  Second, it embraces the notion that STEM education is required learning for more than just future rocket scientists and brain surgeons, and that every single student benefits from being STEM literate.  And third, it brings together education and industry, ensuring that the business community sees its role and responsibility in educating a better student and preparing a better workforce.
At the end of the day, economic stimulus is about more than physical infrastructure.  It is about more than the roads and bridges and buildings we’ve been talking about.  Economic stimulus is also about the human infrastructure that serves as the true catalyst and the true engine driving the American economy.  It’s about equipping today’s students with the skills and knowledge they need to win and keep real jobs.  It’s about giving them a reason to take those roads and bridges.  It’s about instruction, skill building, and workforce readiness.  That’s the real hope, that’s the real opportunity, and that’s the real stimulus, both know and for the long term.

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