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More funds for broken school system mean little

Let’s be honest with ourselves and admit that most of those resolutions to lose weight and save money have been forgotten by now — after all, the new year is a week old. So, I want to propose a resolution that Mississippians need to adopt and pursue in 2007 and beyond: Each and every one of us needs to invest some effort toward promoting education in our state.

And I mean education for both our youngsters and for old Baby Boomers like me.

Over the holidays, I picked up a copy of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s book “The World is Flat.” His hypothesis: advances in technology amount to a third major step forward in globalization. I encourage everyone to read Friedman’s work, but in case it isn’t on your reading list, I’ll summarize his assertions.

The first step in globalization occurred when Columbus sailed west to reach India, a maneuver necessitated by the Muslims blocking the traditional land routes. At that point, countries began participating in the global economy. The next step was the industrial revolution, which placed different parts of the manufacturing operation in different places, often in different countries. Thus, companies were now acting globally.

With the third phase of globalization, by using electronic technology, individuals can participate directly in the global economy. Now, what has this got to do with education in Mississippi?

Friedman’s travels to India, China and other places gave him a new perspective on the labor force in developing countries. At the risk of seeming un-American, the workers in these countries, particularly the youngsters, are fighting to learn new skills and are willing to work for less than we consider a living wage and are going to continuously take U.S. jobs away. Unlike us, they do not have a dependency mentality and are willing to work long hours and do whatever it takes to be successful. And, they do this while going to school to further develop their skills.

Now, I’m so American I bleed red, white and blue, but I’m also a realist who pays attention to world affairs. We’ve got to get over that Great Society-Dependent-I’m-a-Victim mentality and get to work if we’re going to save our place as the leading economy in the world. If we don’t, the Chinese will soon supplant the U.S. as the dominant world economy. It’s as simple as that.

And where does it begin for the Magnolia State? With an honest admission: Mississippians are not sufficiently committed to education. Our high school dropout rate is atrocious. Further, adult Mississippians do not pursue lifelong learning the way our neighbors in other states — and countries — do. Thus, our skills and understanding of the world around us just aren’t up to par. We’re stuck in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality that may have been OK in years gone by — when the world wasn’t so flat — but is a prescription for disaster in the world of today.

Students who don’t finish high school are going to have a tough time in life. I don’t believe that anyone would argue with that statement. Even though we all agree on the importance of completing high school, each year around 40% of our kids don’t make it to graduation. Those kids are destined to eke out a meager existence and aren’t likely to become real contributors to our economy or our society.

Surely there’s something we can do beyond wringing our hands and wishing kids could understand the importance of education.

Dr. Hank Bounds, our State Superintendent of Education, is working hard to change Mississippi high school classrooms — making them more relevant for more kids. Changes include allowing technical courses as alternatives to some traditional academic subjects. We need to understand what Dr. Bounds is doing and give him our support. He will encounter heavy bureaucratic opposition from the education establishment in trying to make changes in the system — that system producing a 40% dropout rate.

Though money is an important issue in education, it is not the primary problem. The existing system is broken — that’s the problem. Pouring more money into an outdated system shackled to an ineffective and unresponsive bureaucracy only makes it a more expensive failure.

Each of us needs to accept the reality that no one is going to take care of us but ourselves. Companies can no longer be counted on to provide a lifetime of stable employment. Not only manufacturing jobs, but service jobs, as well, are being exported at an increasing pace. The only solution is for each of us to become the CEO of ourselves.

CEOs have responsibility to comprehend the big picture and implement strategies to capitalize on opportunities and dull the impact of threats. We can all take a lesson from the CEO’s and apply that concept to our careers. What are your threats? Opportunities? What can, and what will, you do about the situation?

In addition to some quiet thinking time and collaboration with trusted friends and colleagues, it would be helpful to learn or improve a skill during the coming year. That is my second suggestion for improving education in Mississippi.

In addition to tuning in to the education system and supporting improvements in the system for our kids, learn something new yourself.

Thought for the Moment

Leadership must be demonstrated, not announced.
— former NFL quarterback
Frank Tarkenton

Joe D. Jones, CPA (retired), is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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