Improving Education for a Changing Economy

Our nation’s economy has changed. It is research-based industries that now offer the greatest potential for growth; it is human capital that now drives the creation of wealth. In this atmosphere, education is quite simply the single most important economic development tool we have.

To make the most of new opportunities will require the most highly skilled, best-educated workforce in the world. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections show that 80 percent of the top 50 fastest-growing jobs require education beyond the high school level and that 40 percent of all new jobs will require at least an Associate’s degree. We must make sure that our students are rigorously prepared for college, work, and citizenship. Two key components for achieving that goal are ensuring that all children can read and have access to high quality teachers.

Literacy is the foundation of learning. In a knowledge-based economy you not only need to be able to read, you also need to be able to read well. Research demonstrates that if students can’t read by the end of 3rd Grade, there’s only a 9 percent chance they’ll ever catch up. That deficiency will haunt them for the rest of their adult lives, creating a recipe for failure. In fact, 34 percent of those who need remedial reading courses in college will never graduate.

In New Jersey, we’ve put reading coaches in schools to help teachers develop better strategies based on students’ individual needs. In addition, we now require all elementary school teachers to learn how to teach reading. To help children develop a lifelong love of reading, we started a Governor’s Book Club that reaches nearly 300,000 elementary school students each month. These strategies focus on reading in the earliest grades so that students can later handle the rigorous coursework we expect of them.

The single most important factor in student achievement is teacher quality. As our expectations for our students increase, so must our expectations for our teachers. In New Jersey, we are revising requirements for teacher pre-service programs so that all colleges use the same standards. We’ve also increased the minimum passing scores for subject matter certification exams and the minimum grade point average needed by new teachers and we’re offering incentives to help teachers earn national certification. Once we get good teachers, we want to keep them. Since we know that most teachers who leave the profession do so within the first three to five years, we’re offering mentoring to help them through that critical time.

Strong reading skills and quality teachers will help prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow. To be truly competitive, however, requires a partnership among local, state, and federal governments. In New Jersey, we have set rigorous standards for our students and increased our investments in education to meet those goals. The federal government should do the same. The “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLBA) sets aggressive and laudable goals for student progress. Its implementation, however, is seriously flawed. Inflexibility with respect to certain provisions has caused unintended results, putting successful schools on early warning lists. In addition, the continued failure to fully fund its programs limits progress. A recent report from the Center for American Progress notes that the administration’s latest budget contains $9.4 billion less than that promised in NCLBA. It eliminates funding for 38 existing programs and provides no additional help for other critical programs, including those supporting teacher quality initiatives. We will not ensure that every child succeeds by simply mandating that it happen; we must make the investments needed to achieve the results we know are possible.

It is still true today what John F. Kennedy said over 40 years ago: “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” We must make use of that most precious resource – our knowledge, our ideas – if we’re to compete and win in a changing economy.

James McGreevey is the governor of New Jersey.

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