It probably won’t come as a surprise that recently in Mississippi, teachers reported to the governor that two out of three children were not prepared for kindergarten on the day they entered school.
But here’s what you may not know — Gov. Phil Bryant expanded pre-K there and implemented a technology-based family tracking system to connect the children who need it most to support programs.
As a result, Mississippi’s children will not only be better prepared for kindergarten, but also through high school and their career.
That’s good news because the Urban Institute has found that, across the nation, students who enrolled in pre-K were more likely to earn a higher salary and own a home, as well as less likely to be reliant on social supports.
But in many areas of the country, there remains a deepening disconnect between how we teach kids and what employers will expect of them in the rapidly evolving workplaces of tomorrow.
America’s governors are stepping up to address this problem. From coast to coast, new ideas are being tested, measured and expanded to help give children what they need from their earliest years until they walk through the door at their first job.
Solving the skills gap is essential. The National Federation of Independent Business found that 45 percent of small businesses have difficulty finding qualified job applicants. In the manufacturing sector alone, more than 2 million positions will remain unfilled over the next decade because workers lack the right skills. And the shortages are touching a variety of fields that offer reliable, middle-class wages, from automotive technicians to Web developers to insurance specialists.
There is much to be said for apprenticeships and training programs, but these must be built on a solid early childhood and K-12 education system. If recent graduates lack reading, math, technology and critical and creative thinking skills, along with essential life skills, they will struggle to find success in a career.
That’s where governors are taking action. The aforementioned Gov. Bryant, for example, instituted “Third Grade Gate” when he discovered 74 percent of fourth-graders couldn’t read at grade level. This literacy measure gauges kids’ reading ability, provides remedial resources and ends social promotion (promoting a student to the next grade level, regardless of readiness) to grade four.
Of course, initiatives like these cost money, at a time when many states are struggling to pass budgets. That’s why it’s refreshing to see governors finding innovative answers to the age-old question: “How do we pay for this?” For instance, Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled a plan in Washington to fully fund basic education for the first time in decades, all while recruiting more teachers, reducing class sizes and — perhaps most notably — without increasing property taxes.
Oregon under Gov. Kate Brown has similarly taken bold steps to pair tax reform with education investment, earning support from a business community eager to stay competitive. She has truly embraced the “cradle-to-career” model, including early childhood education, all-day kindergarten and community college access programs. Now plans are in the works for an equity fund designed to increase graduation rates among at-risk students.
Elsewhere, governors are demonstrating it’s never too early to build the skills for tomorrow. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has committed to teaching computer science to every student and engaged the support of such tech giants as Facebook and Microsoft. Already, nearly 20 percent of the high school senior population has taken computer science, and computer literacy is being taught to children as young as 5. Solving a key problem for rural Arkansas, virtual classes make top-notch instruction available in areas lacking the trained teachers or funding to provide it.
A bit farther north, Gov. Larry Hogan is taking on what he calls the “shocking lack of gender diversity” in the technology field. Not only is Maryland implementing computer science standards for all levels, he’s actively getting girls involved, including a Governor’s Club Challenge in partnership with the national nonprofit Girls Who Code.
Governors’ positions allow for close interactions with a variety of important stakeholders such as parents, teachers, business leaders, community advocates and kids themselves. This means they are acutely aware of local education challenges and can also leverage the best ideas coming from those on the front lines in the classroom and the workplace to benefit more children, families and businesses in their states. Their successes in envisioning and implementing equitable, fully aligned, data-driven education programs are worthy of celebration and replication.
National leaders may want to take note.
Aaliyah Samuel serves as director of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices Education Division, where she works on early childhood and K-12 policies.