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Making the Impossible Possible

In the Mayor’s “State of the City” address he focused on two important and interconnected areas: jobs and education. The Mayor also spoke about making the impossible possible, a message that resonates with many citizens today. With unemployment at record highs (8.5% in the U.S., 11.3% in California and 11.1% in Sacramento) and prevalent low academic performance in the U.S. (compared internationally) and in California (compared to other states), the impossibility of the “American dream” is all too real for far too many people today. Still, all hope is not lost. There is a sense of urgency sweeping the nation and jobs and education are two very hot topics swirling in the media. There is a feeling that the will of the people is present; they simply need to know what to do to help usher in the change we all know is needed.

What is still lacking and hindering progress is a shared belief that education is the underlying issue of our economic woes.

In 2011, American manufacturing could not fill 600,000 skilled positions due to a lack of qualified candidates . Among a national sample of 1,123 executives, 67% experienced a moderate to severe shortage of qualified workers and 56% anticipate the shortage to increase over the next three to five years. These executives complained that the education system is not producing workers with the basic skills they need. A 2011 talent shortage survey of diverse companies across the globe cited the evermore specific skill sets employers are looking for and their frustration with finding people with both the technical competencies and business knowledge needed to be successful . Employers in the U.S. reported a 38 percentage point increase (from 14% to 52%) in difficulty filling jobs and 73% of all employers cited a lack of experience, skills or knowledge as the reason for this difficulty.

In the midst of economic crisis and record unemployment, many jobs are available.  These jobs have the potential to fuel families’ personal economies which we know fuels spending, home ownership, and the like. So, what’s the disconnect?

Education is the missing connection and underlies the structural unemployment we are facing. While we have many people looking for jobs, the jobs that are open require skills our citizens don’t have. This is referred to as the middle-skill gap – skills in science, technology, math and engineering that will fuel our increasingly technological and global society are sorely lacking. It is estimated that the number of jobs for Californians with postsecondary education will grow 50% faster than jobs for high school drop outs between 2008 and 2018. By 2018, 60% of California jobs will require an education beyond high school and by 2025, there is a predicted workforce shortage of 1 million college graduates . Here in Sacramento, 57% of health care employers reported difficulty in finding registered nurses and 78% cannot fill medical imaging positions. Sacramento employers in the energy efficiency field, a booming field in the area as noted by Mayor Johnson, reported difficulty hiring workers in eight critical areas to clean energy. 

There is a shortage of qualified employees, not just a lack of jobs.

Our education system is at the heart of this crisis. The U.S. ranks 15th in reading, 23rd in science, 31st in math, and 26th in overall educational quality among 65 countries . California is below average in academic performance compared to other states and schools in the Sacramento region boast similarly poor results with only half of the students being proficient in any subject . Those who make it to college are often still undereducated. Over 70% of California community college students required remediation in math and Englishiv. Similar results are seen in our state’s CSUs. With these types of results, achieving the American dream is becoming increasingly impossible – more a fantasy than a dream.

Amidst these bleak statistics, there are places to look for solutions. A recent Global Public Square special on CNN entitled “Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education” profiled South Korea and Finland as two diverse examples of nations with very high student performance using very different approaches. South Korea relies heavily on testing and students spend an immense amount of time studying, in school and after school. Finland is a complete contrast spending less time in school with no standardized testing, but focusing instead on creativity and critical thinking. Both nations rank among the top three in reading, math and science. The special goes on to ask American industrialists what we can learn from South Korea and Finland and what is needed to transform public education in the U.S. The common message among the presenters and the common denominator between South Korea and Finland was teacher effectiveness. Among these commentators – national presidents, industry tycoons, and education reformers – there was agreement that effective teaching is a key ingredient in a strong educational system. In Finland it is more competitive to get into a teacher education program than medical school. Their teacher education system is rigorous and systematic, with layers of professional development and requirements for proof of ability to effectively shape young minds. By contrast, in the U.S. almost half of our teachers graduate in the bottom third of their college graduating class .

Two research reports were released this January on this very topic, one by the National Bureau of Economic Research and the other by The Education Trust–West (ETW). Both reports discussed the ways in which teacher effectiveness can be reasonably assessed and the impact a teacher can have on their students’ life outcomes. The economists found that students assigned to a more effective teacher were more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, live in better neighborhoods, save more for retirement, and were less likely to become teenage parents. They also report that an increase in teacher effectiveness (replacing the bottom 5% of teachers) would add $250,000 of lifetime earnings per classroom into our economy. Researchers at The Education Trust–West found that effective teaching greatly impacts student learning, with an effective teacher adding half a year more learning in English-language arts (ELA) and four months more learning in math for their students. The ETW also reports that low-income students and students of color are systematically less likely to be taught by an effective teacher and more highly impacted by quality-blind layoffs. It is clear why we have such persistent achievement gaps.

These are not the first reports of their kind. There have been others before them discussing the importance of teacher effectiveness as well as other topics in education reform like fiscal responsibility and parent choice. Clear sets of solutions have been proposed. So, we are again left asking, what is the disconnect? Why do we not act on some of these suggestions and try something radically different?

You are the missing connection.

Your outcry is what we are missing – the voice of the people standing up and demanding a different course of action. In a democratic society, systems are transformed by the will of the people. No one can pretend to have the answer. There is no one magic bullet that will alter the course of education in this country. But we do know more of the same is not the answer. That is, after all, the definition of insanity. Democracy requires an educated citizenry. Our economy demands a quality education based in the future of science and technology we are all heading towards. Your future necessitates our children are prepared to run our nation, our state, and frankly, your affairs. Systems cannot reform themselves. You must require them to change, to become better, to meet your needs.

STAND UP for education Sacramento! With our state legislators in our backyard, what better place to begin than here. We can fix education. We can restore the American dream. Let us lead the way for the rest of the state to follow in making the impossible possible.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for November 2011; presented on Google.com
“Boiling point: The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing” sponsored by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute
The “2011 Talent Shortage Survey Results” sponsored by the Manpower Group, surveying nearly 40,000 employers across 39 countries and territories. 
“Can California Compete?: Reducing the Skills Gap and Creating a skilled workforce through Linked Learning” sponsored by America’s Edge
A special edition of Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program, Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education (November 6, 2011)


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