The new national education crisis: What are our startling numbers?

More than a few policy experts have speculated on education-related problems as being one of the prime reasons why there have been delays in corporate investments in additional employees — even as un-obligated surpluses continue to mount in the coffers of these corporations. Former President Bill Clinton, for one, stated recently that companies that lost jobs during the recession are looking for employees with more sophisticated job skills than were possessed by those who left those jobs. A recent nationally broadcast news show contained a segment from a job fair in Texas. The corporate head who was being interviewed spoke of the startup of his company some five years earlier. He stated that the company started with five employees and that today it has 170 employees. The unique point he made about his company’s workforce was that all 170 had either a university or community college degree.  
While much of the country is already beginning to embrace the need to act boldly in the name of education — even in these trying economic times — such sentiments have recently been given a boost by news from the documentary film “Waiting for Superman.”  This movie purports to chronicle the deteriorating condition of the nation’s educational system. Perhaps most startling in the pre-release information are some of the movie’s statistical facts such as those that have the United States ranked 25th in math and 21st in science among the 30 so-called “developed” countries in the world. In a similar manner, S. James Gates, in the May issue of Science News, uses data like these as a pretext to sound the alarm for what he calls the third great crisis in science education in the United States. Gates labels the deteriorating status of the nation’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics as the third crisis equal to the effort to gear up for World War II and the national panic following the Soviet launch of Sputnik. The prediction at this point is that the United States is indeed on the verge of launching a “post-Sputnik” like effort to eliminate the distance in our current position and world leadership in math and science education.  
But then that nagging question arises. Where does that leave Mississippi? In 2010, high school graduates in Mississippi had the lowest average scores on the American College Test (ACT) in the nation at 18.8, compared to 21.0 for the nation as a whole. Average math, reading and science scores for the class of 2010 were the lowest in the nation.  Furthermore, the ACT sets benchmarks for assessing college readiness for those who take the test.  In 2010 in Mississippi 10 percent of all who took the test met the benchmarks for college readiness as compared to 24 percent for the nation as a whole.
Now before the reader considers pointing fingers at the many hardworking, underpaid teachers perhaps they should consider other factors. Low educational achievement and poverty are always highly correlated. In Mississippi, the poverty rate for school children ages five to 17 was the highest in the nation in 2008 at 27.8 percent as compared to the national average of 16.5 percent. Virtually always related to the poverty issues are issues of nutrition, access to healthcare, poor early childhood learning experiences, lack of access to high-quality pre-school programs and lack of high quality after school programs.  Children in poverty enter school at a significant disadvantage, and that gap is very difficult if not impossible to ever completely close.  
That Mississippi stands at the precipice of the next great effort at advancing the nation’s educational capabilities and that we are ill-prepared economically and structurally to get in the game is at one and the same time nobody’s fault and everybody’s fault.  If you are seeking someone to put the pressure on, then this list should provide a start.  Parents who have not done their jobs at home or who depend on teachers to teach and parent also must be near the top. Colleges of education should have been leading the way as the first line of offense in putting forward corrective measures for the system. School administrators and teachers should be prepared to step up and meet the challenges or perhaps where warranted find other careers. We, the taxpayers, who do most of the finger pointing and make most of the demands that problems be fixed, and then whine endlessly about the potential cost to our pocketbooks for doing better are going to have to have a change of attitude. Finally, the policymakers at the state and local levels are going to have to lead the way and the only way we can go is forward.  
 There must a new resolve to commence pre-kindergarten programs to prepare our children for enhanced education at the kindergarten through 12th-grade levels and we must restore our efforts for the workforce development and other crucial programs of our community colleges. Finally, our universities must be enabled to compete nationally in research and development. It is more apparent everyday that the national train of education reform is about to leave the station and if Mississippi is not attached, even as the caboose, that train is not waiting nor is it coming back. 
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.
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