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Legislators must set ambitious new ‘skills goal’ for education pipeline

Date Published: 02/09/2012

Author: Dane Smith, President


In an already hyper-politicized legislative session marked by exceedingly low expectations, lawmakers in 2012 could make a few specific, constructive improvements on both ends of the education pipeline to improve the odds for all our children and for our economy.

Here are three such moves, which already have bipartisan support. These policies also are backed by experts in education effectiveness and by business leaders who know they need an ever-more skilled and educated workforce.

For one, legislators ought to approve bipartisan “dual credit” proposals that will enable many more high school students of average ability to get an early start earning college credits, a proven inducement to attaining skills and credentials beyond high school. These kinds of programs are already in place for gifted high schoolers, and a comprehensive report on their progress and possibilities was produced last month by the Center for School Change at Macalester College.

Second, much further back in perhaps the most important part of the pipeline, lawmakers could protect or increase funding for early childhood education. They must enhance — at minimum, they must not impede — the ambitious efforts under way by a new fusion of groups working with federal Race to the Top grants, designed to jump-start improvements in often-overlooked early childhood programs. With half of Minnesota children entering kindergarten not fully prepared, the grant will bring Parent Aware Ratings statewide, to help parents find the child care providers in their community that are using best practices for kindergarten preparation.

Third, legislators must set a measurable brainpower goal for the state. Call it college, call it workforce development or call it a “skills goal.” The clear consensus is that Minnesota needs to boost the percentage of adults who have education credentials beyond high school that align with the jobs in a changing economy. Other states, notably Oregon, have set such goals for the end of this decade and setting such goals is a major initiative of the “Complete to Compete” initiative launched by the nonpartisan National Governors Association. At Growth & Justice, we have pushed for a goal of 75 percent postsecondary completion (up from a current estimate of 50 to 60 percent) for all young adults by the end of the decade.

The case for improving education attainment — and just as important, closing the yawning attainment gap that exists between white Minnesotans and our fast-growing communities of color — was brought home in convincing fashion this month at the annual meeting of Minnesota Compass. The Compass project, led by Wilder Research, is an ambitious and authoritative effort to organize and measure socioeconomic data and indicators in the state.

A presentation by Compass consulting scientist Craig Helmstetter illustrated the theme that a consistent gap of about 25 to 30 percentage points separates children in high-income families from those in families with low incomes, and separates white students from students of color. For instance, slightly more than 80 percent of white children graduate on time from high school, compared with just over 50 percent of children in families of color. Almost 90 percent of third-graders from high-income families pass reading proficiency tests, while about 65 percent from low-income families meet the standards.

But perhaps the most telling slide in the presentation was the one showing future direction — on median income, employment and educational attainment — under scenarios in which the student achievement gaps persist or are closed.

The dotted lines for the future diverge sharply (see chart). Closing the educational achievement gaps will keep our economy growing and exceeding national averages; persisting gaps will continue our current stagnation and slumping toward the national average.

“Minnesota’s workforce needs higher levels of education than ever before,” said the keynote speaker for the event, Chancellor Steven Rosenstone of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), an energetic champion of redesigning and reinvesting in higher education. “We need a more robust pipeline of increasingly skilled workers, innovative and creative thinkers who solve problems, are on the leading edge of knowledge creation and bring those solutions to market.”

Rosenstone called for the above-mentioned dual-credit options in high school and for better mapping by MnSCU and businesses of workforce needs, sector-by-sector and region-by-region. And he called for a reversal of unacceptable budget-cutting trends that have produced a 48 percent reduction in per student state government funding for MnSCU since 2000, resulting, of course, in steep tuition hikes.

Noting that the United States is slipping from its traditional status as first in the world in higher education attainment, and slipping fast for the population under the age of 35, Rosenstone cited Thomas Friedman’s landmark book “The World is Flat” and his more recent book, “That Used to be Us,” both of which emphasized brainpower in a global economy. (Friedman was born and raised in Minnesota, wouldn’t you know?)
“Education still remains the first pillar for fostering the economic growth needed for America to come back,” Rosenstone said, and support for that pillar must not be subject to partisan nonsense.

“When it comes to education and investing in our people, it doesn’t matter what your political philosophy might be, which political party you belong to or what region of the state you come from,” he concluded. “All of us must work together, [and] the ultimate goal is nothing less than the economic vitality and quality of life in our state.”

Closing education gaps crucial for Minnesota’s continued prosperity

Whether we close the educational achievement gap for children from low-income families and communities of color will largely determine whether Minnesota continues to outperform the nation economically. This graphic by Minnesota Compass, a project of Wilder Research, shows a continuing decline or stagnation in median income, educational attainment and proportion of adults working if the achievement gap persists. But Minnesota retains and builds on its superior economic strength if the gap is closed.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, February 9, 2011.

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