Education makes the difference in a global economy

As a naturalized citizen, I came here believing in the superiority of U.S. public schools. In fact, pursuing my education was the only reason my parents permitted me to leave India. My father believed the United States would equip me with the educational and life skills that I would need to be a success. And it did.

That is why it saddens me to see the current crisis in DeKalb County, which is a glaring example of how low we’ve set the bar for education in Georgia.

When I was Georgia’s commissioner for industry, trade, and tourism, and in my prior career leading a global engineering consulting firm, I had the good fortune to meet with business and political leaders across the world.

I was proud to be an ambassador for my adopted country and state.

I recall a conversation with the prime minister of Japan. My job was to talk up Georgia’s world-class airport, ports, and infrastructure, along with the many other benefits of doing business here. The prime minister sternly explained that Japan would expand its business footprint in places that could provide a talented and prepared work force.

That conversation was repeated in many places. Businesses go where the work force is prepared, innovative, and forward-focused. Global businesses have not flocked to my native India because of the infrastructure. What exists there in abundance is a prepared work force. And India values continuous learning, often provided by employers and gratefully absorbed by employees who have line of sight between education and skills, and opportunity to improve their lives and create vibrant, global communities.

While infrastructure is important, what is critical is a location’s talents and skills. It’s a lesson Georgia’s leaders, parents, students and voters need to reflect on, particularly during these economic times.

DeKalb County, and all of Georgia’s counties, must make education a top priority. To do that, DeKalb has to commit to the critical importance of having a future-focused, academically prepared citizenry. But first it has to look in the mirror and declare a crisis. The word “crisis” in Chinese, is represented by characters that mean danger and opportunity.

Given the succession of missed opportunities in our educational system in DeKalb County, it’s no wonder the cynics decry Michael Thurmond’s appointment as interim superintendent. After all, his resume is not a conventional profile for a top education administrator. But I would ask, “How are the conventional solutions working out for us?”

As commissioner, I worked with Thurmond and am familiar with his strong, innovative administrative and leadership style. He brought inspiration and energy, and an uplifting work ethic to the Georgia Department of Labor. In reinventing the way the unemployed view becoming employed, he stressed personal accountability, responsibility for skills training, and also engaged employers in the equation.

The requirement for leadership isn’t a specific degree or professional experience. The requirement is to have a passionate commitment and to create a clear and compelling vision that resonates with people

DeKalb schools appear to be on the brink of lost accreditation. Instead of doing the same thing again and expecting different results, why don’t we try an unconventional solution and be innovative like Finland, which leads the world in academic achievement through an approach that defies that taken by most Western economies?

(Optional trim graf)Finnish kids don’t start school until age seven. Their first mandated standardized test occurs at age 16. There is neither homework nor tests until students reach their teens. Students of all aptitudes study together in the same classes. Ninety-three percent of Finnish students complete high school, 15 percentage points more than in the U.S. Sixty percent go to college. Finland spends 30 percent less than we do on a per-student basis. Notably, teachers are selected from the top 10 percent of college graduates.

In Finland, parents, teachers, and the country at large set forth a vision and direction, and they have executed with excellence.

Here, we need sustained solutions, not patchwork “interim” leadership. In business, politics, and almost every area of endeavor, champions and heroes have come from unexpected places to take up the mantle of leadership with public confidence. Perhaps that’s what can happen in DeKalb County.

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