At a forum titled "Breaking the Monopoly of Mediocrity," the Missouri Chamber of Commerce on Thursday offered several school reformers a platform for sharing their ideas on how to reinvent public education. Although not every remark was downright scathing, at least two of the speakers conveyed their dismal opinion of the American education system.
About 38 people - lawmakers, lobbyists, educators and business leaders - attended the discussion, held at the G2 Gallery in downtown Jefferson City. The event was one in a series of 15 meetings being held by the U.S. Chamber across the nation.
Cheryl Oldham, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for a Competitive Workforce, asked rhetorically: "How are we doing as a nation? Not good."
Oldham lamented America has dropped from first to 16th in "college attainment" - a measurement of the number of people who earn college degrees.
"China will have more college graduates - 200 million - than our entire workforce by 2013," Oldham said.
She noted the nation is now ranked 14th in reading skills, 17th in science knowledge and 20th in math proficiency, compared with 35 nations worldwide.
"Calling the situation mediocre is probably a compliment, but it's actually a crisis," Oldham said. "Our students aren't ready for college. Everywhere we go, this is what employers tell us. We have millions of unfilled jobs because employers can't find skilled employees."
She lamented 33 states have been granted waivers from complying with the No Child Left Behind law, enacted under George W. Bush's administration. She said many of those waiver applications are hundreds of pages long and permit the states to use accountability measures that are "largely incomprehensible to anyone outside the system."
Although the No Child Left Behind law had many detractors, she conceded, at its heart it had a simple, easily understandable goal. "It required nearly all children to do grade level work in reading and math," she said. "No Child Left Behind did one thing really well. It brought data to the conversation where it didn't exist before. Now the challenge is how to use it to inform decision-making and present it to parents."
Other panelists joined Oldham's mantra.
Tyler Nottberg - CEO of a Kansas City-based mechanical construction firm called U.S. Engineering Company - said he and his competitors are in a "war for talent."
"I hear people say "impending crisis,' but it's very real, because the pool" of qualified job applicants "continues to shrink and the skill sets are lessened."
Nottberg said the "most crushing" statistic he's heard recently is the idea that "the U.S. today is behind almost all other countries in social mobility."
"Where education used to be the path, now it's the barrier to the American dream," Nottberg said.
Chris Nicastro, who was appointed Commissioner of Education by the Missouri Board of Education in 2009, said for Missouri's 900,000 students, a high school diploma is essential, but not sufficient, for success in the workforce. She feels all Missouri students must obtain a secondary credential - either by attending community college, a four-year institution, entering the military, etc. - in order to avoid the pitfalls of poverty.
Nicastro said Missouri is participating in the "Pathway to Prosperity Network," an education initiative designed to build career pathways for high-school aged students.
"We are developing plans so that every student has a pathway to the workforce, and that starts in middle school," she added.
Don Danforth III, the president of City Academy in St. Louis, said his school has built success by focusing on hiring teachers who are experts in their fields and passionate about the core subjects they teach. He said his team tries to build students with "grit," or who are hardworking, resilient and capable of overcoming challenges.
The panel also discussed the pros and cons of assigning each school building in the state a letter grade - A to F - based on how much improvement or growth in student achievement that building can show. And panelists talked about the status of the state's teacher training programs.
Few of the business speakers identified funding as a necessary component of improving schools, although Art McCoy, the superintendent for the Ferguson-Florissant School District touched on the topic and Nicastro weighed in.
"Full funding of the state's foundation formula is essential," McCoy said, imploring the business leaders to be generous with nearby schools.
But Oldham interjected that leaders should try to help schools that are "doing the right thing."
Nicastro also answered a question about "changing the culture" at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which she oversees.
"There's no question that the culture - I'm not going to say it's toxic - is one of entrenched institutional bureaucracy. It's an indictment of our department," she said. "I would like to say, based on the number of bullet holes in my back, we're questioning the status quo and trying to hold people accountable for success.
"Measuring progress is essential, but we have a long way to go. It's going to take longer than I'm going to be in the position."