As President Barack Obama’s education agenda languishes behind health care, business groups are trying to push the issue to the forefront by linking it to economic recovery.
“The notion that we’ll get to education after we get these other things done is shortsighted,” said William D. Green, head of the Springboard Project of the Business Roundtable, which represents chief executive officers from the nation’s largest firms.
Green, chairman of Accenture, a management consulting firm, noted an irony lurking in all the gloomy economic data: The unemployment rate is 10 percent but businesses are struggling to fill 2.6 million jobs because applicants lack required skills.
That gap will only increase, Green warns, if the nation’s educational system isn’t changed to reflect the type of skills employees will need in the future and the impediments that are driving graduation rates down.
“As we look past the recession, there is another huge problem ahead. It is increasingly apparent that the U.S. lacks a strategy to help American workers get the skills that they and our businesses need to fill today’s and tomorrow’s jobs,” the Roundtable’s Springboard Project members have concluded.
To focus more attention on the issue, Green on Thursday unveiled a new report that offers recommendations for changing the federal education system and highlights the businesses community’s commitment to improve higher education and graduation rates. “Business is putting skin the game,” said Green.
Among the major suggestions: Reshuffle federal spending to reward schools for the number of students they graduate rather than the number they enroll, expand the roll of community colleges and adapt their curriculum to fill needs in the job market, and employ technology to make learning and retraining more accessible.
The report also urges Congress to amend federal student aid rules to provide bonuses, debt forgiveness or other financial incentives to encourage recipients to stay the course to graduation.
As part of the business community’s commitment, the roundtable – which represents chief executive officers from the nation’s largest firms — pledged to use their considerable influence to advocate on behalf of reform measures consistent with their priorities.
The roundtable is also asking that each of its company members partner with at least one state, school district, or college to develop a program aimed at improving graduation rates or upgrading curriculum to modern standards.
The roundtable is one of several high-profile, private initiatives aimed at improving student learning and performance.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has teamed with the more liberal Center for American Progress to rally around Obama’s “Race to the Top” program, which offers grants to states that adopt tough academic standards and measure teachers’ ability to help students’ achieve them.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, created by the Microsoft founder, recently unveiled $335 million in grants to promote effective teaching.
The objective of all those programs is close a growing skills gap between workers and employers, and to boost postsecondary graduation rates. The U.S. ranks second-to-last among developed nations in postsecondary completion rates, according to the roundtable.
The House has already passed an education reform bill. In the Senate, action is expected next year – after Congress completes work on health care reform, successfully or not.
“I think we gotta start getting this on the national agenda,” said Green.
But he acknowledged the road ahead will be fraught with special interests protecting their turf. “There are going to be a lot of challenges. There are going to be a lot of roadblocks and a lot of people who don’t want to change,” he said.