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Challenging, uphill climb to turn education around

Dr. Hank M. Bounds’ efforts to overhaul the K-12 public education system is “a breath of fresh air to a system that has been fixed and stale for way too long,” says Dr. Pete Walley, director of long-range planning for Mississippi.

“I believe Dr. Bounds ‘gets it’ that our economy and the nature of our occupations are significantly changing and at a very high rate,” Walley said. “I hope everyone realizes that this is a first step, and that the education system will be required to adjust and retool often in the coming years, at least until we better understand the true nature and educational requirements of the global economy.”

People expecting a quick and easy fix will be disappointed. For a number of years, Walley’s job has been to describe broad problems facing the state’s economy and to make some general recommendations as to how the state and its citizens should respond.

“I continue to think that most of our policy-makers and agency leaders do not really believe the magnitude and swiftness of the economic changes well underway,” Walley said. “But even if they do, translating broad recommendations into specific programs and actions is the difficult part of the process. Inherent in the nature of institutions and large groups of similar thinking people is the resistance to change. That is the real battle being fought by Dr. Bounds and others when they propose significant changes from the way that things have been done for the last 50 years or more. I hope employees of the public K-12 citizens begin to understand the forces that are requiring the K-12 system to change.”

Of the four overriding issues that Dr. Bounds believes must be addressed, the issue of changing cultural attitudes and mindsets to value education is, in Walley’s opinion, the most important and significant one to address. While it is very necessary to increase the rigor of curriculum and assessments, increase the quality and quantity of teachers and administrators and adequately fund the education system, those efforts are insufficient for students to compete in the world economy.

“The pre-kindergarten effort, from a program viewpoint, is very important,” Walley said. “Witness that the Barksdale Reading initiative spent approximately $44 million at the third-grade level since its inception and recently came to the conclusion that they were not getting the results expected. Research literature indicates that even by the third grade, it is too late to get children back on a reading level with their peers. A solid pre-K program could significantly improve the number of students with ability to read.”

Walley believes the seven career pathways are a good first start to giving students clues and ideas about career opportunities. But career pathways will be more dynamic requiring the educational system to quickly adjust to new job requirements.

Recent efforts at understanding the nature of off-shoring jobs leads to the conclusion that many more workers in the U.S. will have to be trained for personal services and fewer for goods producing (manufacturing) and impersonal services, that is, those types of services that do not require face-to-face or personal contacts and can be easily done by persons in any part of the world. “If this is true, it will mean that ‘people skills’ will be more important than technical skills,” Walley said. “That is not to say that we will not need technical skills, but that a higher emphasis in the educational process should be placed on developing people skills. I think this will require educational specialists to look again at how we educate children as much as what we teach them.”

A recent working paper by Alan Blinder of Princeton’s Center for Economic Policy Studies says “the societies of the rich countries seem to be completely unprepared for the coming industrial transformation. Our national data systems, our trade policies and our educational systems all must adapt to the fundamental movement from impersonal to personal service jobs. None of this is happening now.”

Walley said while he doesn’t want to paint too bleak a picture, he is trying to help the systems and the policy makers understand that the changes are significant and that they must be willing to change as much and as often as necessary if we wish to compete in the global economy.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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