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Educating the Work Force

By Dave Adkisson

This is a critical time for Kentucky’s schools – and Kentucky’s employers. The state’s new academic standards, defining what students should learn, are now being taught in our classrooms, and students will be tested on them for the first time next spring.

These standards are tough, reflecting what is being taught in the top-performing nations of the world, and they require that the content students learn in high school is correctly aligned with what they will need to know in college.
Of special significance for employers, the standards are designed to prepare students for both college and the workplace. “College and career,” in fact, has become something of a buzz phrase in education circles these days.

Just what does that mean? According to state education officials, a student is college-ready if he or she can succeed in an entry level credit-bearing course at a college or university and move on to subsequent courses.

Career readiness includes the ability to apply core academic skills to real-life situations in the workplace; employability skills, such as critical thinking and responsibility; and technical, job-specific skills related to a particular career.
These developments represent encouraging news for employers. A recent survey of our members found that 52 percent of respondents believe the quality of Kentucky high school graduates fails to meet employer expectations of what is needed for workplace success.

We believe the more rigorous standards represent the change that employers desire. But it is only a beginning, and ensuring success will require the sustained commitment of educators, parents and employers.

That will be particularly important when the new tests are given, especially if student scores are lower than they have been in the past – something that wouldn’t be surprising since the tests will be much more challenging than those given before.

It would be understandable if the lower scores led to a call to abandon the new and return to the relative comfort of the old. But staying the course is critical.
Employers will need to let their influential voices be heard at the local and state levels when school boards, principals and teachers are being questioned about the rigorous requirements of the new standards.

As Education Commissioner Terry Holliday pointed out in a recent speech: “Kentucky’s future economic health depends on a well-educated workforce. The new academic standards, along with our push to ensure college and career readiness for all students, will help the state improve student achievement and graduation rates and provide students with the skills they need to be successful after high school.”

Recognizing the importance of this work, the Kentucky Chamber Foundation is partnering with the commissioner’s department and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence on an initiative to build employer support for the standards and the potential they represent for Kentucky’s future.

The initiative, which is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, began in December when I joined the commissioner in a presentation before the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce. It will continue in the coming months with a series of joint appearances around the state, some of which will include Prichard Committee Executive Director Stu Silberman.

Employer and community support is essential for the extra effort that Kentucky’s students and educators are making. We owe it to them, and to the future, to do our part to build a stronger Kentucky.