Doing Better at Doing Good

State needs long-term vision for education to fix economy

November 10, 2012 

As our new governor and legislature comes into office, some significant challenges await. Yet there is an opportunity to start forging a legacy that can impact our state for generations to come.

Today there are almost 450,000 unemployed North Carolinians. It is estimated that this costs our state close to $2.7 billion in taxes owed to the federal government for unemployment – a tax burden that is being shouldered by our business community in higher unemployment taxes. Clearly this is not sustainable. As Lew Ebert, President and CEO of the North Carolina Chamber, stated recently, “there is no more important time to think about how to do things better.”

There are few short-term remedies. Getting back on track is going to require significant vision, a longer-term strategy, and perseverance. It also requires pulling the right levers that will help make this state competitive globally.

Sixty years ago, North Carolina had one of the lowest per capita incomes in the country. Our economy was dominated by low-wage manufacturing and agricultural jobs and we were losing talent much faster than we could attract it. Recognizing the urgency, political, business, and academic leaders forged a vision for transforming our economy, lifting per capita income, and creating an integrated regional community.

Started on 4,400 acres that were described as nothing but “pine trees and possums,” the result became the Research Triangle Park, which greatly reduced our dependence on tobacco, textiles and furniture. It also helped create a knowledge economy that today features more than 170 companies employing 42,000 people, generating $2.7 billion in competitive wages and serving as a significant talent draw.

Research Triangle was not a short-term fix, but it fundamentally changed the trajectory of our state.

As we look to the future, we can’t afford to have our growth curve flatten. Yet without renewed urgency, a bold mindset, and a long-term vision matched with a smart strategy, we risk this happening.

So where should we invest to put us on the right path? Our youngest generation. If equipped with the knowledge, networks, confidence and competence to thrive in tomorrow’s world, our young people will help lead us to a new era of prosperity.

Last spring, North Carolina New Schools held a Workforce Development Strategic Planning Forum with top leaders from across the state. The emerging recommendations included: transforming learning to develop the skills of all students to match career opportunities and employer needs, and linking students and teachers to relevant workforce experiences.

In a recent survey, the Center for Creative Leadership (where we both are connected) surveyed 462 global executives about critical skills for tomorrow’s workforce. Among the most important were adaptability and versatility, effective communications, learning agility, multi-cultural awareness, self-motivation/discipline and collaboration.

Transformative learning challenges students to become real-world problem solvers, learning to lead with others to develop and implement sustainable solutions to our community’s toughest challenges. It means highly experiential teaching and learning environments that have direct relevance to the dynamic world around us.

A promising model is SCALE-UP. Started at N.C. State University, it has been adopted by more than 150 schools nationally. The learning style is student-centric, active, tangible, collaborative and technology rich. Students often lead the teaching, with the teachers serving as “thought-provokers” and most direct instruction happening online at home – with classroom time dedicated to project-based learning. The result: A study of 16,000 physics students taught using this method revealed that failure rates have dropped by a factor of three for all students, four for minorities and five for women.

The challenge is scaling these promising approaches. This is going to require preparing, supporting and rewarding teachers in a fundamentally different way. This is ultimately where our long-term investment needs to be channeled.

Because of turnover and student growth rates, North Carolina needs more than 10,000 new teachers every year – approximately 10 percent of our teacher workforce. Investing in their education is paramount to us investing in the future of our children.

Part of this education is helping teachers take a different approach to teaching and learning. It also includes getting teachers out of the classroom. The Kenan Fellows Program at UNC, for instance, offers “externships” to 50 teachers a year – helping them connect with researchers and executives in science, technology, engineering and math – so they can bring those lessons back to the classroom.

Similarly, some companies are opening their doors to student internships to provide real-world perspective, but we’re just scratching the surface. We really need an all hands-on-deck effort readying our teachers and students for the future demands of a global marketplace.

Research Triangle Park required a long-term investment matched with vision, resolve and a strong public-private partnership. We need this kind of leadership to keep North Carolina on the right path – starting with investing in our children and teachers.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward, Queen City Forward and HUB Raleigh, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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