‘America’s Perfect Storm,” a January, 2007, report by the Educational Testing Service, details three concurrent forces in American society that, if not deflected by policy changes, will have far reaching implications for the nature of our society: The disparity in literacy and number skills among different segments of the population; economic changes driven by technological innovations and globalization; and demographic changes, fueled largely by immigration.

The confluence of these factors may reduce our ability to compete in the global economy and also may increase the gaps between the haves and the have-nots at home. Even our democratic political system might be threatened.

Charles Cascio, vice president of interactive learning for ETS, will be one of the panelists who will examine the report (available at www.ets.org/perfectstorm) and explore how workforce development is critical to local and regional economic growth. The event, which is part of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Breakfast Series, “Building a Powerful Region,” takes place on Thursday, February 26, at 8 a.m. at ETS Corporate Headquarters, Conant Hall, on Rosedale Road.

The moderator is WHYY host Tracey Matisak and the other panelists are Elizabeth Maher-Muoio, director of the Mercer County Office of Economic Development and Sustainability, and John Simone, chair of the Mercer County Workforce Investment Board and president of John Simone Realty (U.S.1, February 18). Cost: $35. Registration details are available at www.princetonchamber.org, or call 609-924-1776.

“The report is not aimed at pointing fingers, it is just laying the facts out,” says Cascio. Referring to the report’s analysis of educational, demographic, and economic factors, he says, “This convergence at this time makes it imperative that institutions take actions that will keep these forces from gathering to their full destructive potential.”

The report’s goal is to raise the attention of American educators, businesses, and policy makers to the factors that will create tumult:

Divergent skill distributions. High school graduation rates fell from a 1969 peak of 77 percent to 70 percent in 1995, where they have remained. But the graduation rate for disadvantaged minorities is thought to be closer to 50 percent. The black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps have remained large and relatively stable.

On top of this, compared internationally our average performance is mediocre and the degree of inequality in skills among different groups is among the highest in countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. As a result, large numbers of adults do not have sufficient number and literacy skills to participate in increasingly competitive work environments or navigate the bureaucracies of our complex society.

Economic changes. Manufacturing’s share of total employment decreased from 33.1 percent in 1950 to 10.7 percent in 2003. Between 1984 and 2000 two-thirds of job growth was in jobs associated with a college education. These same college labor market clusters are expected to generate about 46 percent of all job growth between 2004 and 2014.

An important consequence of this shift is increasing economic returns to higher levels of schooling and skills, resulting in a larger disparity between high-level and low-level jobs.

Demographic changes. Between 2005 and 2030, the United States population is projected to grow from 300 to 360 million, with immigration having a significant effect on the composition of the workforce. Yet more than half of foreign-born Hispanic immigrants in 2004 lacked a high-school diploma, and 80 percent of these speak English poorly or not at all.

Projecting to 2030, the report suggests that, as a result of these changes, as better educated individuals leave the work force, they are likely to be replaced by people with lower levels of education and skills. At the same time, since nearly half of job growth will be in occupations associated with higher education and skill levels, tens of millions of adults will be unable to qualify for higher-paying jobs. Instead they will be competing for lower-wage jobs with each other, with newly arrived immigrants, and with equally or better skilled workers in economies around the world.

Cascio emphasizes that this report is not taking shots at teachers and that ETS has high regard for educators, who are doing the best they can. “What is at work are forces that require a combinations of institutions to meet the challenges — educators, policy makers, and business,” he says.

“What we are saying is that when you have the kind of storm that is emerging, you have to go back to the very fundamental areas,” says Cascio. “Something here is not working, and we need to figure out what it is and try different solutions. What we can’t keep doing is try the same things, and I think that is what educators are trapped in today.”

Cascio suggests several possible ways that New Jersey might respond to this report and better serve its 400,000 students.

Technology. In some parts of the country, says Cascio, foundations are providing schools with new technology and training teachers to engage students and help them learn in different ways. “Technology, if used properly, can give students access to education in ways different than ever. With computers, cell phones, or mobile technologies, for example, students can learn in nontraditional settings — even from playing games.

The business sector. Business, says Cascio, needs to take a more proactive interest in schools — for example, through organizations like Jobs for America’s Graduates. “It has a great track record of going into school districts where there are real problems and kids are not graduating,” says Cascio. Businesses can also help students stay on course by providing internships, offering them a job when they graduate, and working with the schools to ensure that students develop the particular skills required by local businesses.

Business leaders can also visit schools at regular intervals, speak to students about their businesses, and answer their questions about the types of job skills needed in this economy. “This has a big effect on kids,” says Cascio. “It shows them that it is something attainable when they see a business leader take the time to come in and answer their questions. It can get them thinking, ‘There’s a real reason for me to stay in school.’” He adds that business leaders can mentor a student or a group of students.

Businesses can also link up with educational institutions to vigorously recruit minorities into the teaching profession. Prudential joined up with the Newark Public Schools and Montclair University, for example, on a program to recruit, educate, and mentor 45 new math and science teachers to work in the Newark public schools.

Legislators. Policy makers, says Cascio, need to look closely at school curriculums and at the lengths of both the school day and the school year. As compared to the 180-day school year in the United States, many other countries have a 240-day year.

New Jersey is looking at the America Diploma Project curriculum standards, he says, which require greater rigor as well as increased focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics — subjects seen as vital to better preparing students to compete globally.

Cascio believes that policy makers can ensure more flexibility in the school day, both for teachers and students. “You can’t be locked into the 50 minutes per class schedule around for years,” he says. The school may need to provide a different schedule, for example, on a business leadership day or even for a particular cohort of students who are at risk but have great potential.

Another important policy role is commitment to renovation of physically deteriorated schools, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. “If a student goes to a school that is clearly falling apart,” says Cascio, “they are going to take that environment into consideration when they look at themselves; it tends to contribute to the way they view themselves and view their education.”

Yet another challenge the educational system is beginning to face is the decline in the teaching work force as many baby boomer teachers retire over the next decade.

Cascio was born in Brooklyn, where his parents both grew up in immigrant Italian families. When his father went to work for the CIA, the family moved to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. His mother worked in a bank.

Cascio graduated in 1968 from Wagner College in Staten Island with a bachelor’s in economics and business administration. He also has a master’s in communications and public affairs from American University, where he also taught for a couple of years.

After two decades as a high school teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia, and working concurrently as a freelance journalist, he got involved in educational reform as vice president for certification standards and teacher development at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. There he was involved in providing advanced certification for teachers.

Cascio joined ETS in 2000 as director of special projects, where he helped coordinate the company’s corporate-image campaign and increase the visibility of its education-reform activities. He has also led the communications and public affairs division, where he helped establish the first companywide sales force.

Now he heads the interactive learning strategic business unit, launched in January, 2007, which is creating products to deliver learning through the Internet, hand-held devices, multimedia technologies, and other distribution channels.

“America’s Perfect Storm” only lays out the issues we are facing, suggests Cascio, but no road map exists to get us out of the mire — only a few signs in the muck pointing toward potential improvements. “There are no easy answers,” says Cascio. “It is intricate and complicated, and that’s why we are calling on a partnership between educators, policy makers, and businesses.”

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