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Time for Michigan’s corporate leaders to fight for 21st century education

As a former newspaper reporter, I reflexively cringe when I hear the words “sponsored content” connected to print media outlets. Often, “sponsored content” is essentially slightly- less-overt-than-typical advertising that vexes both journalists and readers alike because it is usually presented side-by-side with articles by professional news gatherers.

Given my longtime aversion to sponsored content, I was pleasantly surprised – make that thrilled- to read a sponsored piece that was published in a recent edition of one of America’s most respected magazines because it was thought-provoking and completely aligned with the work Michigan Future Inc. is doing to help boost prosperity in Michigan. The piece sponsored by Bank of America in The Atlantic, perfectly explains the need for American schools to shift from an over-emphasis on test-driven instruction to teaching and learning that gives students access to the broader skills that employers are seeking in modern employees.

The most competitive countries and companies already place great value on such intellectual agility. According to a recent survey of 291 U.S. hiring managers, creativity, critical thinking, and the social skill required to work well in teams were the top three criteria for job candidates today. And as industries become increasingly automated—the number of industrial robots used globally is roughly doubling every five years, from 69,000 in 2002 to 229,000 in 2014, to a projected 400,000 by 2018, according to the WEF—the need and market will grow for the people whose intelligence, interpersonal skills, and social conscience form the basis for strong corporate and national-economic growth..

While I’m impressed that Bank of America sponsored an article about this critical issue in the Atlantic, I wonder how much of the bank’s annual lobbying budget is dedicated to promoting these ideas among lawmakers or how many of its philanthropic dollars are dedicated to efforts that support 21st century education initiatives? If Michigan’s corporate community is any guide, likely not much. I’ve long wondered why our state’s employers – obvious stakeholders in the imperative to boost Michigan’s education fortunes – continue to be eerily mute on education issues. It’s certainly not because corporate leaders believe our schools are producing enough well-educated students to lead their businesses in the future. Michigan consistently gets low scores for educational attainment:

Education Week’s 2016 Quality Counts state report card gives Michigan an overall score C- grade. For K-12 educational attainment, the report card gives Michigan a score of D.

• In its 2015 report “Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness,” the United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation gave Michigan an overall “D” grade as well as “D” for academic achievement among African American students. The state earned an “F” for its educational progress since 2007.

The 2016 Kids Count report from the Michigan League for Public Policy and the Anne E. Casey Foundation ranked Michigan 40th of 50 states in education.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s corporate community has been reluctant to engage in efforts to modernize and strengthen education in our state.

This is not to say that some business leaders haven’t tried to influence education in Michigan. The Detroit Regional Chamber has several education-related initiatives; often hosts meetings and seminars to discuss education innovations and has partnered with the City of Detroit to manage its Detroit Promise scholarship program. Business Leaders for Michigan has consistently pushed for more state money for higher education. The Ford Motor Company Fund has many education initiatives. And while I don’t agree with much (or any) of Betsy DeVos’ education agenda, I do give her credit for putting her time and money where her mouth is when it comes to influencing Michigan’s educational landscape. But these are the exceptions. Many business leaders have done little or nothing to help policy makers and educators understand that when they hire employees, they seek the broad skills that aren’t included in the curricula of most Michigan schools.

The bottom line is this: It’s not enough for only politicians, journalists, teachers unions and organizations like Michigan Future to engage in thinking about the state’s education agenda. Too many lawmakers in Lansing take their policy cues from business leaders for their voices to be muted. If companies want Michigan schools to turn out students who are collaborative, creative, critical thinkers and great communicators, they need to speak up.

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Kim Trent

Kim Trent is a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future's mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. She also serves on the Wayne State University Board of Governors and is especially interested in education policy and race, class and gender issues.

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