Experts Urge Academic and Business Collaboration to Boost U.S. Education Attainment

WASHINGTON — What role should businesses play in helping to improve educational attainment and in shaping the nation’s work force? That was the question explored Wednesday morning at a policy forum hosted by the National Journal magazine that featured White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes and a panel of education and labor experts.

Education fuels the American Dream, but unfortunately Americans have not worked hard enough to ensure that students graduate from high school either career- or college-ready, Barnes told the forum audience, Part of the problem, she added, is that there are considerable differences among what states say are appropriate elementary school math or reading levels.

In addition, several states have even lowered their standards, she said. The administration has asked states and chief state school officers to stop such practices and adopt common-core standards leading to students “that are college- and career-ready” and making “sure we understand what our children need to know and learn” but that also allow states and localities flexibility in reaching those standards, Barnes noted.

Barnes said that in addition to greater emphasis on STEM courses, the administration also wants to broaden school curricula in response to the business world’s desire for employees who are analytical thinkers, proficient oral and written communicators and creative thinkers.

But we realize we can’t do this by ourselves. We have formed partnerships with the private sector to move this forward,” Barnes said, such as Educate to Innovate and Change the Equation.

The administration has CEOs from more than 100 companies to work with it on a variety of initiatives, such as internships, STEM programs and teacher training, Barnes said.  

The administration also has established Skills for America’s Future, which teams employers and community colleges to match curricula with industry needs and plans to establish a prize to encourage and incentivize the best innovations in community colleges.

During the panel discussion that followed remarks by Barnes, Susan Traiman, director of education, innovation and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, said education in the United States has lagged behind its global competitors for quite a while, even though there have been some improvements.

“It’s not that we have a worse education system. It’s that we’re improving incrementally, while other countries are racing past us,” she said. “We’ve not felt the same urgency as other countries that basically copied our game plan. They adopted the American Dream through education.”

Andy Van Kleunen, executive director of the National Skills Coalition, said the small and medium-sized companies that provide the majority of jobs in the U.S. need to be included in policy discussions about education and industry. He believes a platform needs to be created whereby smaller employers can get together locally with education and training providers to align education with industry needs.

The labor movement has successfully partnered with employers and community colleges to create a pipeline for highly trained employees, said Elizabeth Shuler, secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CLO. She cited construction and manufacturing industries as examples where labor and management create joint training trusts, paid for by employers and workers, so that those workers can take advantage of opportunities to develop or expand their skills. Such partnerships have enabled displaced steel industry workers to get retrained to work in wind turbine manufacturing plants.