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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

The $1.15 trillion opportunity we’re blowing

If you search online for information about a “skills gap” in the US workforce, you will find ample evidence, such as an article last year from Fortune. It is easy to conclude that jobs and the very nature of work are changing much faster than the way we educate children to take on those 21st century jobs. Search further for solutions to close that skills gap, and you will probably come to the conclusion – as I have – that the primary problem is not money. The federal, state, and local governments along with private funding in the United States collectively invest $1.15 trillion every year into education. Over half of that – some $634.4 billion – goes directly into public elementary and secondary education, according to projections by the US Department of Education for the 2015-16 school year. That latter figure works out to $12,605 per student per year in the public K-12 system. To put that in context: the US spends 35 percent more per student on K-12 education than the OECD average. These very large numbers can trigger all sorts of finger-pointing and rationalizations. But they also beg some obvious questions. The questions I would like to raise are: what kind of return should Americans expect for this incredibly large investment? In other words, what kind of return would you expect to get on an annual investment of $1.15 trillion? And what term do we use to describe all this money? How much is investment and how much is preventive maintenance for the US economy? In Chicago right now, people have begun to chime in on how to improve the return on the investment in the city’s own public school system. One summary from the Raise Your Hand organization shows a mix of ways to increase revenue and cut costs. These may have their merits, but none will matter until everyone with a stake in this opportunity – from parents to educators to politicians to employers – agree on a clear-cut vision for education, and make that vision bold and aggressive. We need to expect much more, not only from the school systems of Chicago and Detroit, but everywhere. Please don’t expect the ultimate vision in a 1,000-word blog post. I don’t have it. But we must rephrase the questions to be: what do we deserve for our $1.15 trillion every year? What’s the best we can do for our money? Answering these questions has to become an acute mission, not just at the federal level in this election year but at the state and local level every single day. The problem has many dimensions, so let’s start laying out some thoughts on how to invest that $1.15 trillion every year in a way that improves the country’s chances to have a labor force which grows the economy and enjoys its fruits. The achievement gap and the skills gap One dimension is the “achievement gap” between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Harvard University professor Thomas Kane recently called the battle to close the achievement gap in the United States “the education equivalent of the fight against cancer”. Employers often refer to a “skills gap” and I know what they mean. We have to break this down into basic skills and enhanced skills. Over the course of the last 30 years I have had the opportunity to interview hundreds of potential candidates for skilled and less-skilled positions, both in the United States and overseas. Frankly, I am tired of college graduates who can’t tell the difference between “its” and “it’s” and who can’t set up a basic word problem which an Algebra I student gets for homework every night. Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, captures that same sentiment. His firm gives new employees a grammar test. To put the basic skills gap into broader context, let’s not forget that the OECD ranks the US at 28th in an analysis which compared test scores in math and science for students at age 15. What about enhanced skills? If we are investing $1.15 trillion per year into developing citizens with the skills and knowledge required in a 21st century economy to get jobs, hold them, create value, and busy themselves with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, what should they learn? Again, we are not going to answer that question collectively and definitively without hard work and a ton of political will. But we must answer it in a way that reflects an overarching vision of education. I would encourage you to make your own list: beyond basic skills in math, language, and science, what other things should children learn in secondary school so that they can enter the job market immediately or enhance their skills further through trade or college studies? Here’s my list, and I would be very eager to see others: Design: This means how to create something, by going from the genesis of ideas to the finished product or service. Economics: Even some of the basics of classical economics – supply, demand, tradeoffs – and their basic applications to business would help immensely Storytelling: You might think this is here because that is how Present Tense LLC earns its money. But it is a legitimate, learnable skill which improves productivity. It helps people communicate in a more structured, efficient, and persuasive way Critical thinking: I am not sure how you can best instill a healthy skepticism in people and a willingness to challenge what they hear. But this is a very important and unfortunately uncommon skill Civics: Call me naïve, but the ability to discuss and debate the rights and responsibilities of citizens seems lacking in the current political climate in the United States. These five skills apply very broadly, no matter what someone decides to build, fix, or do for their living. Whether someone fixes Fords for a living, owns the repair shop, designs the cars, runs Ford Motor Company, or buys and sells shares in Ford … the skills above will help people do any job better. Can we teach these things within a K-12 program? I am confident we can. What is on your list? And what is your vision for what we need to accomplish with those $1.15 trillion we invest every year? Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. He co-authored the book “10/10: How to write business content that is memorable and effective” and was part of the team which translated and edited “Confessions of The Pricing Man” for author Hermann Simon. You can also follow Frank on Twitter: @FrankLuby

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