What Have We Learned?

PowerSouth invests resources into economic development in Alabama and the Florida panhandle. Economic development, new jobs, and better-paying jobs are the lifeblood of communities. We know it, you know it, and local leaders know it. If an economy (especially a small economy) is not growing, neither is the community. To build stronger communities and cities, we need more and better jobs.

Local leaders often ask what can be done to make their communities more desirable to expanding businesses and attract more and higher caliber jobs. There is no one single answer or simple solution.

The most important factor for a community in attracting jobs and growing an economy is a skilled and educated workforce. To build better workforces, we must improve education — especially elementary and secondary education. As a state, we trail the field. And, I don’t mean we are just a little behind. We are so far behind we can’t see the front.

Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Auburn, the Montgomery private schools and a few other state school systems provide quality educations. However, the Montgomery County Schools, the Birmingham City Schools, the school systems across the Black Belt, and other school systems in the state are total failures by any objective standard. Those schools are simply not preparing our young people for successful careers and are not providing our communities with an educated workforce.

If you ask people what they think about the education level in their community, they usually say, “It is good, I think it is getting better,” or “Well, the schools are better than when I was a kid.” If you ask teachers or school officials, the answers are, “We don’t get any parental support. They don’t help their kids at home,” or “There is not enough money to do what needs to be done.”

We tend to measure ourselves against ourselves or against neighboring states. We take comfort in the fact that education is getting better or is better than our neighbors. But how do we compare not just with neighboring states but with the rest of the world?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures reading ability, math and science literacy, and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries every three years. By PISA’s standards, the U.S. is not doing so well. In the PISA’s 2015 study, the U.S. placed an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science and reading. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, ranked the U.S. 30th in math and 19th in science among its 35 members.

Among other states, Alabama ranks from 44th to 46th in education, dependent upon different studies. We take pride in being better than Mississippi; however, according to the studies, we aren’t. We are better than New Mexico and Utah, but Mississippi and Arkansas are better.

Massachusetts is ranked first among states by most studies. If it were treated as a separate country, it would be ranked 9th in the PISA study. If Massachusetts, the highest ranked state, is 9th in world, how high would Alabama, the 44th ranked state, be?

Alabama trails most states and the rest of the world in education. China, Germany and Hong Kong are better, but so are Poland, Estonia, Denmark and most of Europe.

We are behind, but what do we do? First, as with most problems, we have to get beyond denial. We have to recognize our education system is broken and get serious about changing it. Our education system is so inadequate we need to start over. We need to study other states and countries that have improved education and implement the changes they have made. We have to commit more resources, competent people and money to improving education.

The State Legislature and Administrative Branch must take responsibility for our deficiency. They must embrace education as the most important issue for the success of Alabama. They must insist local governments commit the necessary resources to improve the state’s education system. They must provide funding to improve education. Parents must be engaged in the process. Educators must be held accountable.

Educating our young people is the most important thing we can do for the future of Alabama. We must improve education to provide jobs that will keep our young people home and keep our communities viable. We, as individuals, must hold community leaders, politicians and administrators accountable for improving education. If we are not relentless in demanding better education, we will continue to be behind, and our communities will continue to suffer.

I hope you have a good month.

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