By any measure, the future quality of our public education system is one of the most important issues facing our country. The system is the foundation of our ability to compete and succeed as a nation, and it is the engine for social and economic mobility. Here in Maryland, we understand that strong schools foster strong communities and a strong economy. Productive jobs increasingly require significant education and training. For our students to enter the workforce prepared to succeed, investing in education must be a national priority.
The federal government plays an enormously important role in education through the Department of Education and the funds it allocates to state and local governments. While our investments in education must continue to grow, they should increasingly be tied to embracing important features that have proven to drive better results for our students and communities, including:
*Access to Higher Education and Technical Training
My parents never had the opportunity to go to college. A scholarship from my father's IBEW Local 164 allowed me to attend Columbia University. All students, no matter their background, should have access to higher education and technical training.
There are specific steps we can take to remove barriers between students and higher education and technical training. These steps include supporting Pell grants and work-study programs and easing rules for student loans. I support President Obama's efforts to keep the cost of college down. However, college is out of reach for many families, and for some students it is not the right choice to develop their immediate interests or skills. Technical and vocational training should be as important as college counseling in our high schools to provide students with hands-on training and education to prepare them to enter the workforce.
We should also support incentives for schools that are creating proactive programs to reduce their dropout rates and equip students with important skills like financial literacy that will help them pursue higher education and technical training.
*Support for Quality Teachers
Teacher quality is one of the most important factors in student achievement. A new study also shows that top teachers can have long-lasting positive effects on students' lives, including lower teen pregnancy rates, higher college matriculation, and higher adult earnings. We must attract and retain quality teachers; they are hard-working professionals who deserve competitive salaries. We also need to recruit high-achieving college students and graduates into the teaching profession through scholarships, loan repayment assistance, and other programs. Further, we need to support real evaluations for teachers in order to guarantee the best education for our children.
We must move away from our reliance on standardized testing, which is not an accurate evaluation of a student's capability. In today's era of innovation, standardized testing attempts to cookie-cutter our youth while the job market is very individualized. Moreover, standardized testing puts pressure on teachers to use it as a tool to measure success, which is greatly unfair to students who learn and think differently and therefore may not succeed on standardized tests. We must listen to teachers, who have overwhelmingly spoken out against relying on flawed standardized testing.
We should emphasize skills, not scores. Until we reevaluate standardized testing, we are short-changing America on producing a strong workforce and quality workforce leaders.
A one-size-fits-all approach to education is wrong. While we need strong oversight and accountability, schools should have greater flexibility to manage and size programs, compensate top-performing educators, and embrace technology. We must also give schools the flexibility to create innovative solutions for pressing issues such as dropout prevention and achievement gaps.
One of the biggest issues brought to my attention through Blueprint Maryland's series of roundtables with Maryland leaders is the importance of "soft" skills in today's jobs. Whether it is job interview training, business etiquette, or public speaking, these skills can prove to be just as useful to a student as standard lesson plans and classes in traditional subjects. Like technical and vocational training, along with fundamentals, we need to integrate soft skills into curriculums so that our young people are better prepared to navigate the workforce.
Providing as many opportunities as possible for citizens to continue their education, regardless of background or age, should be a priority. Community colleges are not just learning institutions but true centers of the community with a pulse on what is needed and how to meet these needs. Be it technical training for green jobs, biotech research or preparing students for university, these institutions are providing valuable services and play a key role in the higher education system of the United States. We must ensure that community colleges are well-respected and have the resources and funding they need to serve their local regions.