Americans Agree: High Standards, Skills Training Are Keys to Success
The summer of 1977 was life-changing for me. I was 17 years old and traveled to India for the first time, where I was struck by the overwhelming poverty and lack of opportunity, particularly for young people.
During those few weeks, I developed a deeper understanding of the historical barriers to equity in India and of the connection between strong communities, stable job opportunities and an educated, skilled workforce—lessons that have stayed with me throughout my career. As governor of Delaware, those experiences underscored for me the importance of not just creating jobs for our young people but also of investing in our students’ communities and education to ensure that they are prepared to meet workplace demands.
As the world becomes more globalized and the nature of work changes, an increasing number of jobs will require both a strong basis in academics and a technical skill set. But right now, too many of our young people aren’t able to fill those jobs. The unemployment rate for Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 is nearly twice the national average. This is unacceptable.
We need our students to be prepared with strong academics and skill sets to be qualified for these opportunities.
Findings from two recent national education surveys, Education Next’s survey on school reform and the Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK) poll on the public’s attitude toward public schools, show an increasing demand for both rigorous academics and career preparation.
Despite some of the political hay made around high academic standards in recent years, Education Next found widespread support among Democrats and Republicans for high standards. Regardless of what individual states call the standards, the message is clear: The public wants to keep standards high for all of our students.
PDK also reaffirmed the effort that states have been making to build career pathways for students. In addition to high standards in core content courses, the poll found parents want advanced academic classes for their children—including STEM courses, career-and-technical training and a focus on building interpersonal skills, all of which are critical to the workplace.
This holistic approach, however, doesn’t change parents’ desire for honest information about how their children are performing academically. More than 60 percent of parents expressed support for annual assessments in grades three through eight. Even more noteworthy, PDK found 77 percent of public school parents are confident or very confident that standardized tests do a good job of measuring what their child is learning.
These assessments provide critical feedback on whether students are prepared for the next grade and life beyond high school. They also help shine a light on the achievement gaps that must be addressed—particularly considering that youth unemployment rates are highest among communities of color.
In Delaware, I was able to see firsthand how a commitment to high standards, rigorous academics, aligned assessments and career readiness can raise student achievement and better equip students with the skills they need for the journey beyond high school.
My team and I collaborated with educators to raise academic standards for all students, and we increased graduation rates and enrollment in advanced coursework. Through the creation of our Pathways to Prosperity program, we also connected students’ curriculum with workplace experience so they could graduate with a head start on a college degree or gain qualifications needed to go to work immediately.
I’ve also witnessed how a focus on experiential learning and life skills can reduce dropout rates and keep young people on the path to graduate from high school and be college and career ready. Combining academics, career readiness and interpersonal skills just make sense.
At a time when states are submitting their final education plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and preparing for implementation, the findings from these polls provide a clear directive for a continued commitment to high standards, rigorous academics, aligned assessments and career-readiness preparation.
From my teenage years through my tenure as governor, I’ve seen the critical connection between a strong economy and workforce. As we continue to create jobs here in the United States, we need to ensure that our students have the knowledge and skills needed to meet the changing demands of the workforce.
Our nation has long been termed a land of opportunity; let’s make sure this continues to ring true for future generations.
Jack Markell, a Democrat, served as the governor of Delaware from 2009 to 2017. He is a former chair of the National Governors Association and was a co-chair of the initiative that established the Common Core State Standards. He currently serves as an advisor to the Collaborative for Student Success.