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Know Where You're Stepping

School reform movements are not unlike salsa dancing: one step forward is sometimes quickly followed by one step back. With school reform, unlike great salsa moves, these steps are neither coordinated nor much fun.

Two weeks ago, the Obama administration proposed increased funding and autonomy for states to work with the private sector to align academic skills with workforce needs. Among other things, the new career and technical education (CTE) plan calls for better collaboration and accountability from all stakeholders, including school districts, universities, and the private sector.

Many countries have already aligned their education system to workforce needs—and to great success. Singapore, for example, designed curriculum, teacher professional development, and student assessment systems based on input from businesses, and data that showed workforce trends. The nation's economic growth is roughly twice that of the United States', despite difficult global economic turmoil.

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the new CTE plan, I thought it was a step in the right direction.

Then I read about a proposal put before the New York State Board of Regents to cut the global history and geography exit exam in order to prioritize two CTE pathways instead. (I should note this plan was in the works for two years and was not a reaction to Secretary Duncan's announcement.)

Proponents of the proposal argue that roughly half of all test takers failed the global history and geography exam, and it is too difficult and less relevant than the other CTE pathways. Their intentions, however good, represent a step backwards.

We've entered a globally competitive, knowledge-based economy. A rising workforce must possess global knowledge and skills. Global history and geography allow students to understand interconnected systems, as well as the roots of tradition and conflict that sometimes shape international and interpersonal relations.

I'm not suggesting that an exit exam is the answer. But this I urge: as New York and other states consider how to meet workforce needs, talk with local industries and multinational corporations. When I meet with business leaders, the message is clear: globally competent workers are in high demand.

With better coordination, the steps we take together can be a wonderful thing.

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