Educational equality and excellence will drive a stronger economy

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The following op-ed is cross-posted from The Brookings Institution

By Arne Duncan

This election taught me two things. The first is obvious: We live in a deeply divided nation. The second, while subtle, is incredibly important: The election was a massive cry for help. People across the country–on both sides of the political spectrum–feel they have been left behind and are fearful their basic needs will continue to go unanswered. Rhetoric may win votes, but it doesn’t put food on the table. There’s been much discussion of how we’re divided by race and class, but I believe a huge driver of our nation’s current challenges is created by educational inequity.

The persistent lack of access to world-class educational resources and technology in far too many communities is at the heart of this issue. This inequality breeds more than just subpar test scores. It snowballs to create economic immobility, stranding people without the training necessary to earn well-paying jobs. As the job landscape evolves–STEM jobs are growing 70 percent faster than non-STEM jobs–we need to create opportunities for people to develop 21st-century skills and level the playing field for all demographics.

The strong reactions to new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing last month illustrates the importance of education to all factions of our nation. We need to be prepared to find a solution that provides opportunity for all Americans and bolsters our economy. I urge policymakers to make technology education a national priority.

By 2020, demand for skilled technologists will exceed the number of qualified applicants by 1 million, leaving our country vulnerable in key areas such as technological innovation, economic development, and cybersecurity. Our inability to resolve the digital skills shortage is bleeding the U.S. economy of approximately $1 trillion annually.

When compared to 17 other industrial countries, U.S. workers ranked last in “problem solving in technology-rich environments.” If we expect to compete in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills, we need to concentrate on closing the digital divide. The reversal must begin in K-12, where currently only one in four schools teach computer programming.

The impact of this skills gap is easy to see across local economies. Georgetown University predicts there will be an estimated 228,000 STEM-related jobs in Michigan by 2018, but as Detroit public schools rank the lowest among big-city districts in math—with only 4 percent of eighth graders scoring proficient or better—the question lingers: Who will fill those roles?

Rhode Island is home to a number of large companies, including Hasbro, Amica Mutual Insurance, CVS Pharmacy, and FM Global. While these companies actively seek skilled workers to fill technical roles, state unemployment remains above the national average. This disparity can be hard to understand, until you realize the unemployed population is not equipped with the hard skills needed to succeed in these types of positions. Until things change in education, this gap will continue to grow. In 2015, when unemployment was at 6.1 percent, just 42 students in the entire state took the AP Computer Science exam. Through Computer Science for Rhode Island, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has set forward an ambitious plan to put computer science in every school, but we need support at the federal level to accelerate such state efforts.