The past several years have seen the debate over education reform versus simply pitching more dollars at status quo public education intensify and get ridiculously nasty. To fix America’s broken education system and create a skilled workforce to make the U.S. more competitive in a global economy, we must focus the conversation on the real issues to reap the rewards we want and expect. Our kindergarten through higher-education systems find the usual suspects: traditionalists pleading that more money is the remedy for successful student achievement and reformers who insist on leaner specific programs and aligning funding to focused teacher evaluations and stronger interventions for students who are not meeting proficiency in specific disciplines.
Both sides seem to have the research and data that supports their position in this escalating and increasingly divisive argument: getting public education on the right track. Meanwhile, graduation rates continue to drop and remediation rates continue to rise, state education budgets are being cut, and the gatekeepers for no change do everything they can to keep promising reforms on the shelf. The private-business sector, public sector, labor unions, educators, legislators, parents and students cannot seem to find level ground to agree on anything, much less produce solutions that actually work. Then taking those solutions to scale is another issue.
Considering this, is there any hope or anywhere we can all make an investment in education in which there is solid proof of return on investment and something that works? YES, there is!
As someone who represents some 300,000 employees in the state of New Mexico, making sure that we have an educated and skilled workforce for the immediate and distant future is part of the daily thought process and quest of the New Mexico Business Roundtable. I’ve often thought that if we could implode public education in the United States and start all over we could redesign it much the way states are building their early-learning programs and systems. Early Childhood Education seems to be gaining traction and showing results in states where investments are being made in the education of children ages birth to five years old.
Nearly three years ago, I attended an education symposium and listened to a doctor whose practice was in the area of child mental development. Typically, the information at these events is not new or groundbreaking enough to take notes, much less create a shift in our own personal paradigms. But while I listened to this doctor, I was astonished to learn that nearly 85 percent of the human brain is developed between the ages of 4 and 5. Common sense told me that if the brain were developed by that age, then motor skills, cognitive skills and, yes, even patterns of social skills must also be solidifying in their development.
Fast forward to yet another forum I attended recently where several CEOs of our nation’s largest technology companies were conveying the urgency of understanding technology development in the U.S. and globally as well as how rapidly technology would be changing over the next 24 months. One CEO spelled out the technology revolution and its speed like this: He had us envision a student who would be graduating from high school in May 2013. Then he transported us back to the beginning of that child’s educational journey. He reminded us who the student that was entering first grade in the early 2000s actually experienced more fax machines than computers in homes and offices.
That statistic stopped me in my tracks and had me Googling to see if technology had really come that far over the last decade, and what I found was astounding. Just one decade ago, the Internet as we know it only had about 250,000 pages of information available. Today, however, in the time it takes you to recite the Pledge Of Allegiance, 250,000 pages of information have been added to the World Wide Web. What’s more, the speed in which technology advanced over the last 12 years will be lapped by the proliferation of technology developments in the next 24 months. Our nation has gone from cell phones to smart phones and iPhones in a flash. Personally, I can’t keep up with the technologies that will best serve my needs. And, it seems that as soon as I make a decision, my choice is obsolete. Considering this, when I think about technology progressing at an ever-faster pace, it makes me question if I have the transferable skills to not become obsolete myself. After all, don’t we want to target our energy and resources when and where things are happening? And, where do these two issues of early childhood development and education and technology development intersect?
I can remember just a few years ago when our business leaders were telling me that if we could just get students graduating from high school on time with a few soft skills like showing up for work on time and knowing how to dress respectfully—then they could take it from there and provide the specific training necessary for the jobs that were open. That is no longer even remotely the case. The need for every new employee to have the technical and critical-thinking skills to adapt to a seemingly daily change in the way we do business is imperative. It doesn’t matter whether a high-school graduate is planning on a higher-education track or heading directly into the workforce—the knowledge and transferable skills necessary to be successful are the same.
Technology is certainly changing—and changing fast! If the human brain is 85 percent developed by age five—doesn’t it make sense to pay close attention to investing our financial and human resources and keen attention to skills on children in this birth to five-year-old age bracket? As business leaders concerned about our workforce and considering the trillions of dollars we continue to invest in education and training, shouldn’t we recognize the critical nature of investing in those early years so that the workforce who will be on duty in 12 to 15 years have the transferable skills necessary and the ability to adapt to an ever-changing technologically advanced global economy?
I say, “YES!” The research and data tell us that front-loading a child’s education will certainly require a lesser investment later. Never mind the preponderance of evidence that is showing us learning levels at the earliest grades are definitive predictors of incarceration space needed for when those students become adults. Never mind that establishing a solid educational foundation even before pre-kindergarten is showing amazing results moving through the educational pipeline. We must be giving critical attention to early childhood education and the impact on brain development in those first four to five years of life and how that transfers to an ever-changing, technology-centered economy.
So far, the investments states are making in these earliest-age programs are showing the very best bang for our buck.
Larry Langley is the chief executive officer for the New Mexico Business Roundtable and serves as chair of the New Mexico Early Learning Advisory Council. He is on the board of Ready Nation, a national organization with focus on early learning in the U.S. To learn more about the New Mexico Business Roundtable, visit www.nmbree.org. To learn more about the New Mexico Early Learning Advisory Council, visit www.newmexicokids.org.