Former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education Margaret Spellings was joined by international education consultant Sir Michael Barber and Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday at the Kentucky Chamber’s Business Summit to discuss the future of education in Kentucky and what the U.S must do in order to stay competitive on an international level. While providing expertise from a variety of backgrounds, all three speakers expressed a similar message: Education reform in America is at a pivotal moment, and this reform cannot be successful without the involvement of the business community.
Spellings, secretary of education under President George W. Bush, said business people must act as “the point of the spear” in fighting for education reform in order to develop a qualified workforce that meets the demands of a new economy. Both parents and business leaders should demand higher expectations from students and, most importantly, teachers and administrators, she said.
Regarding Kentucky’s education system, Spellings praised the state for being an early adopter of the rigorous Common Core State Standards, having strong data systems and having a solid return on investment relative to the amount of money spent on education. She noted that the state had room for improvement in identifying and retaining effective teachers and exiting ineffective teachers. The lack of charter schools and a disappointing achievement gap between white and minority students are other areas where Spellings saw room for improvement.
Spellings said the U.S. education system has made tremendous strides after the passing of the Bush administration’s most well-known education policy initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act. While acknowledging some of the law’s shortcomings, Spellings said reauthorizing the law in a modified form was crucial. Any reauthorization measure, she said, must consider the interests of all students and include school choice and increased accountability standards for teachers.
Spellings also expressed concern that the battle for education reform is often stalled by education employee groups and bureaucracy. While children should remain the true focus of the movement, she said, employee groups are focused on the interests of those who pay them: the adults.
Sir Michael Barber
Citing data and anecdotes from school systems in India, Singapore, China, Pakistan and the United States, Barber opened his talk to business leaders with some tough love: “Any system that wants to make progress has to stop feeling sorry for itself and take responsibility for its own future.”
Barber’s experience, which included a role as chief advisor on delivery to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, offered a comprehensive worldview of education today and in the future. Even though Barber acknowledges education funding is important, what’s most important is that it’s spent effectively.
“Systems with similar spending habits have widely ranging levels of outcomes and performance,” Barber said. “Spending money alone won’t fix the system.”
Regarding Kentucky’s Commonwealth Commitment initiative, Barber says the goal to take education in the state from ‘good’ to ‘great’ is “ambitious and constructive,” but asserted that Kentucky has an important contextual decision to make: When do we mandate change and when do we persuade it?
“Through mandates you can get systems adequate,” Barber said. “You can’t mandate greatness, you have to unleash it.”
Commissioner Terry Holliday
Holliday challenged the business community to get involved with local chambers and school superintendents to promote the improvement of education across the Commonwealth.
The Kentucky Department of Education’s vision is to make every child proficient and prepared for success – ultimately through new, more rigorous college and career readiness standards and assessments. And according to Holliday, Kentucky has made great strides towards this effort, but there is a long road ahead of us.
“Ninety percent of the fastest growing jobs require at least two years of postsecondary education,” said Holliday. “By 2018, 63% will require some college education. Our problem is a third of students don’t graduate high school. A meager four counties are graduating the vast majority of our state’s college-ready students.”
Holliday gave the audience three assignments as he concluded. First, he asked members of the business community to return to their communities and advocate for the college and career readiness standards when others may push back this school year. Second, he requested the audience formalize their advocacy by signing the Commonwealth Commitment, a resolution supporting the new college and career readiness standards. Lastly, he asked that businesses help school districts develop career and technical programs that serve their needs.