Coming to Our Senses to End the Skills Slowdown
A new report from the College Board tackles the challenge of the skills slowdown--the fact that stagnant rates of educational attainment have caused the United States to fall from first in the world to 21st in the percentage of our students who graduate from high school. While the U.S. ranks second internationally in the percentage of adults over age 55 with a bachelor's degree, we rank 11th among the percentage of younger workers who do so. If we're not careful, the next generation of workers could be the first in our nation's history to have less education than the retirees they replace.
In addition to documenting the skills slowdown, the report also puts forward a set of recommendations for reversing it: First on their list? Make voluntary pre-k universally accessible for children from low-income families. We couldn't agree more, and we're pleased to see the College Board emphasizing the importance of quality early education. Efforts to improve educational attainment rates too often focus solely on expanding financial aid for college, or improving the quality of high school programs. But the problems that lead people to drop out of high school, or graduate without the skills to succeed in college and the workforce, begin long before the high school years. Starting early, and ensuring that children build a strong educational foundation by the end of third grade, is the best way to ensure that they're ready to succeed in college.
In addition to expanding pre-k access, other recommendations include improving teacher quality, aligning the K-12 education system with international standards and college admissions expectations, improving middle and high school college counseling, and providing more need-based college financial aid. For the full slate of recommendations, check out the report here.
At a time of economic crisis, it's easy to focus on immediate challenges while ignoring longer term structural issues. But even after the housing and financial crises have been resolved, the impacts of the skill slowdown will continue to threaten our national economic well-being. Rather than putting off addressing these long-term challenges, we need to act now, and ensure that our response to the financial and economic crises includes measures to improve our educational and human capital infrastructure for the long-term. As we've written previously, that doesn't mean making pre-k part of the stimulus, but it does mean we need to preserve existing educational investments and reforms, invest in educational infrastructure that makes sense (such as school facilities and data systems), and taking advantage in ways the current financial crisis might make it easier to address educational needs (by reducing construction costs and increasing the supply of talented individuals interested in teaching careers).
One small quibble with the College Board's report: While the College Board calls for increased support for early education, throughout the report they refer to the need to improve the "K-12" educational system and strengthen the "K-12 pipeline." If we're serious about improving early education linked to longer-term educational goals, we need to start talking in terms of the "PK-12" system and "PK-12 pipeline." Just something to keep in mind for future reports.