What do our young people need to know?
That question was the centerpiece of the second major event that NBC Education Nation sponsored during in its visit to Atlanta this week. In a noon panel today at the Georgia Aquarium Monday hosted by NBC reporter David Gregory, Gov. Nathan Deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and U.S. Sen Johnny Isakson tackled the question.
The responses were fairly straightforward and essentially gave each politician an opportunity to tout their own efforts on behalf of education. Deal began by saying that the state has a constitutional obligation to educate its children. (I was surprised no teachers jumped to their feet then to ask if that constitutional obligation included adequate funding.)
The governor’s main theme was that Georgia schools were on their way to offering industry a deep and qualified workforce. He listed the various companies that have chosen to open new facilities in Georgia during his term, in part, he says, because they trust that they can find the workers they need.
Mayor Reed said that everyone was now aware how linked education excellence and economic prosperity were. There was a new sense of urgency, he said. “It went from something that may have in the top 5 to something that is in the top two,” he said.
Because of the importance of education, Reed said he begged retiring University System Chancellor Erroll Davis to take over Atlanta Public schools, adding, “We went out and found the best person we could after going through a terrible cheating scandal in the Atlanta school system.”
Isakson said the federal government needs to be a leader in supporting education, but noted it holds a subsidiary role in funding. The federal government only funds 7 percent of public education, he said.
Gregory asked Reed about what he learned about education in a recent trip to China.
While recognizing China’s technical competency and its emphasis on science and math, Reed said, “I was less favorably impressed with the amount of creativity. They do have focus and force of will there — they are able to execute faster because they don’t have robust debate…We also can’t forget that, on focusing on the success of China, at the end of the day this creative component can’t be lost.”
Reed called for changing the popular shorthand term “STEM,” which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, to “STEAM.” The added “A” represents the vital role of the arts in developing a talented and competent workforce, he said.
China is rising because the size of its market, said Reed: “In America, if we appropriately educate black people, Latinos and rural kids, we would see $400 billion a year in expanded economic productivity. We do not have ability to leave anyone on the side of the road anymore.”
(Reed was quoting New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who has written: “If we had closed the racial achievement gap and black and Latino student performance had caught up with that of white students by 1998, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher. If the gap between low-income students and the rest had been narrowed, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher.”)
A second panel featured business leaders, all of whom agreed that problem-solving skills were more critical than any other today.
“We need people who can think, who can solve problems that haven’t been solved before,” said Val Rahmani, CEO of Damballa Inc., an Internet security firm. “We started here because of Georgia Tech. We stayed here because of Georgia Tech. At the end of the day, the people who create the best companies in the world will have the best skills. I will be put in as much effort as it takes to get those people.”
“If you really want to look at creating news jobs, innovation is probably the key,” said Ken Cornelius, president and CEO of Siemens One. “Learning how to solve problems is what is going to keep people employed.”
The conversation shifted to whether Georgia was providing enough aid to students to attend college. From the audience, University Chancellor Hank Huckaby acknowledged that Georgia must increase its need-based student aid programs.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog