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Reversing higher education standards would cripple economy, education

Mike Huckins

Mike Huckins

While signs of economic recovery are a welcome relief, Arizona is by no means out of the ashes just yet. Our state has consistently had one of the lowest-ranked education systems in the country, a problem that severely hinders the development of a workforce with 21st century skills.

We hear it over and over again from business leaders in the community: Students are not graduating from high school ready to enter college or the workforce. In fact, approximately 88 percent of Arizona’s employers say current employees need higher levels of learning and deeper knowledge in order to be effective and efficient workers.

This staggering level of unpreparedness is tragic for our children and costly to our community.

On average, more than 1 million high school students fail to graduate on time each year. Half of all undergraduates turn to remedial courses to assist in achieving competencies in core academic skills, such as literacy and numeracy, which they should have learned in high school. The cost of this remediation is nearly $7 billion annually.

The Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce tasked its Workforce Readiness committee to gather a local perspective on talent recruitment. The taskforce surveyed businesses from a full spectrum of industries about their growth prospects and workforce needs; the results were astounding. Nearly 71 percent of responding chamber members are planning to expand their business. However, 62 percent encountered challenges hiring the talent required to meet their business needs.

Though certain industries lack more candidates than others, every business in Arizona requires a pool of qualified candidates with a work-appropriate set of skills. Arizona’s public education system is not currently providing high school graduates with these critical skills. And for Arizona’s economy to create and support the high-growth, high-wage jobs necessary to compete globally, the state’s education system must develop students whose skills are on par with our international competitors.

In 2010, Arizona took a step in the right direction by adopting the new standards in English, language, arts and mathematics.  The Arizona College and Career Ready Standards (ACCRS) have been implemented throughout all Arizona public schools in grades K-12. The standards were developed using evidence that includes scholarly research; surveys on what skills are required of students entering college and workforce training programs; and assessment data identifying college and career-ready performance. Most importantly, the standards were created using best practices of what works in improving students’ college and career readiness from top-performing states and countries.

It is pertinent to economic development efforts in Arizona that we raise the expectations of our state’s education system. The ACCRS have been set to internationally competitive levels in English and math.  This means that while students may be more challenged by the material they study, they will gain the critical problem-solving skills that their peers across the world are developing and leveraging to move ahead in the job market.

Along with effective classroom instruction and investments to support the transition, the standards will transform classrooms from memorization factories into learning epicenters—creating leaders, entrepreneurs and a better workforce for the 21st century.

This legislative session, some Arizona lawmakers are seeking to reverse the gains we have made in education by repealing ACCRS. If adopted, these measures will be crippling to Arizona’s education system, our businesses, our economy and our community. Improvements to the standards can always be made, but the ACCRS should serve as the foundation in those improvements. In order to close the gap between what businesses need and the skills our students are equipped with, we must continue to support teachers and students as our schools work hard to meet the challenge of implementing the new standards.

The Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce supports higher academic standards in Arizona’s education system. Why? Because a strong education system is the foundation of a strong workforce, which contributes to the growth and sustainability of our state’s economy and — most importantly — to the future of Arizona’s children.

–Mike Huckins is vice president of public affairs at the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.

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