Hundreds of North Carolina leaders in business, government and education gathered at N.C. State University’s Emerging Issues Forum to consider the future of manufacturing in a state where traditional industries such as textiles, furniture and tobacco are now largely a thing of the past.
Their conclusion: North Carolina’s prospects for harnessing the kind of advanced manufacturing now setting the pace on the factory floor depend on the very same formula that helped the state emerge from its agrarian past: education.
Not the book learning of previous generations, but a different kind of education, where schools learn from businesses what skills workers need to succeed and compete; and where businesses join with schools to take learning from the classroom to the workplace to create relevance and authenticity.
By building stronger connections between the state’s businesses and its educational institutions, students benefit from more opportunities for high-quality “real-world” learning, and the state’s economy benefits from a workforce that’s better trained and educated.
Gov. Pat McCrory, who spoke at the forum, said it’s imperative that the state do more to align the interests of business and education.
“We’ve got to close the disconnect between commerce and education,” McCrory said. “We’ve got to do everything to bring commerce and education together.”
He’s right. The need to forge stronger connections between businesses and educational institutions topped the to-do list that forum participants took home. The same week, President Obama would be heard saying much the same thing in his State of the Union address: High schools need to better equip graduates with skills that meet the demands of the modern economy.
Obama went on to propose a competitive program, similar to the Race to the Top initiative that would reward schools for developing partnerships with colleges and businesses and with a particular focus on teaching skills in science, technology, engineering and math.
Obama cited the example of a technology-focused school in Brooklyn, which opened in 2011 as a partnership among New York’s public schools, the City University of New York and IBM. Students at the school, he explained, will be able to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.
North Carolina, too, has a growing number of examples of innovative schools that focus on the kind of teaching and learning that is giving students new opportunities, often through vital partnerships with the state’s community colleges, the University of North Carolina system and businesses that have a critical interest in a well-educated and well-trained workforce.
North Carolina leads the nation in the development of early college high schools, most of them in close partnerships with the community colleges where they’re located. Nearly half the 1,800 graduates of those schools in 2012 also earned associate degrees and many of the others earned significant college credit.
The state is also taking significant steps toward models of schools designed to help students chart a clear course to good careers, with the active involvement of industry and higher education. The newly opened Valley Academy in Lexington was the brainchild of business leaders in the Yadkin Valley wanting to ensure that students are well-prepared with strong skills essential for success.
The City of Medicine Academy in Durham is working in tandem with Duke Medicine to help open doors to students interested in health careers. Wake NC State STEM Early College High School works closely with N.C. State University and Duke Energy to give students a leg up on careers and higher education with teaching and learning focused on science, technology, engineering and math. The list goes on.
Yet developing these kinds of crucial schools takes work and concentrated focus. North Carolina New Schools, which is helping develop and support these kinds of partnerships in dozens of schools across the state, is finding it’s worth the effort. Students are engaged. Teachers are helping students learn to think and solve problems – skills for a lifetime.
These are the schools of the future. North Carolina must put this kind of education at the forefront. The state’s future depends on it.
Tony Habit is president of North Carolina New Schools, a public-private partnership fostering innovation in secondary schools.