On the second day of the Education Commission of the States' National Forum on Education Policy, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell used some strong rhetoric in describing the place of the United States in a world labor market of 3 billion people looking for jobs at a time when there are only 1.2 billion jobs available.
"We are in a global war for jobs, which really means we are in a global war for talent," he said in a panel discussion on July 10 discussing the country's challenge of meeting the demands of a global economy.
The country's competitive edge, and specifically how to regain it, was the focal point of Markell's remarks, which also touched on the lack of urgency he said he sometimes experienced when dealing with parents and other members of the education community. He indicated that he did not have the patience to deal with superintendents who said they were dissatisfied with certain federal policies or requirements: "I say, 'Be specific' and they rarely are."
Markell, a Democrat, contrasted this with the knowledge within the business community that even though states may compete with each other, they can now choose to go to any number of countries outside the U.S. to meet their labor and other economic needs.
"Our job is to make sure they choose here," he said, although he stressed that the answer is not always "lower my taxes" but in many cases circles back to having good schools for employees' children.
Markell also sparred briefly over the issue of the best skills to teach students with E.D. Hirsch, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, which stresses the incremental growth of student knowledge across content areas.
Hirsch argued that narrow, "how to" education models don't provide 21st century skills that students need. Instead, he argued for broad, general knowledge to be taught in schools, "so that you can have the flexibility to do a number of things."
But Markell responded that while such soft skills are necessary, they are not sufficient for students entering the labor market: "That's not a substitute for actually having the technical skills."
Despite his push for changes to Delaware's education system (the state was one of the first two winners of Race to the Top federal grants, along with Tennessee), Markell said he stayed away from using the word "reform" and instead stressed the idea of "continuous improvement," linking the idea back to corporate success.
"Great companies don't have this transformation all at once."
In an earlier session focused on student-to-workforce transition, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, said his state was planning to expand the state's career and technical education schools to meet demands.
"They are so successful that there are waiting lists to get in," he said.
He also said that this fall, Nevada plans to use the Jobs for America's Graduates (JAG) nonprofit organization in Las Vegas high schools and elsewhere are the state. JAG expands dropout prevention and workforce transition programs. Its president, Ken Smith, stressed that there were a variety of programs education officials could use to improve job prospects for students both before and after graduation, from local efforts to the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.