Today’s economy is more competitive and more complicated than it was fifty years ago. Oklahomans entering the workforce today are not just competing against Texans; they are competing against Americans in all 50 states, and workers in Mexico, India, Europe and China.
Today’s jobs require more skills. Fifty years ago you could stand on an assembly line, turn a crank, and expect to be able to provide a middle class life for your family. Those days are over. Today’s manufacturing and energy jobs require everything from basic internet and computer skills to knowledge of advanced robotics.
A more global and more specialized economy has created a more competitive job market with less room for unskilled labor. In fact, it has all but eliminated the possibility that a traditional high school diploma can lead to a job that pays a living wage.
Consider this: fifty years ago, 80 percent of jobs were available to those with high school diplomas. Today, that has dropped to just 35 percent. Of those jobs, two-thirds pay less than $25,000 a year.
This means that education beyond high school is the New Minimum for most Oklahomans looking to enter the middle class and beyond. If they want a career, today’s students must advance beyond K-12 education to pursue degrees and certificates in Oklahoma’s Career Tech programs, junior colleges and traditional universities.
This has massive implications for our educational systems. The world is demanding more from Oklahoma workers; we must then ask more of our schools, starting with our K-12 public schools.
Our goal should be to ensure our high school graduates are ready to continue their education and enter the workforce with the skills they need to succeed.
Today, unfortunately, many are not ready. Too few students – especially in our largest cities – are graduating from high school. Too few are receiving Career Tech instruction or attending colleges and universities. When they do move on to college, too many are unprepared to succeed. Remediation rates are above 40% for incoming freshmen at our colleges, meaning two in five freshmen will have to take additional classes just to begin college-level instruction. That, in turn, leads to more college dropouts and more student debt.
This is a cycle of underachievement that must be broken. Breaking that cycle starts with increasing performance in common education. To do that, the state has proceeded with a number of reforms, not without some controversy.
In the last two years, we have appropriated a $150 million increase to common education, by far the largest increase of any area of state government. We have opted out of the Common Core program, with the intention of creating stronger, more rigorous academic standards on the state level. We have made it easier to terminate the contracts of underperforming teachers.
We have focused on third grade literacy, knowing the third grade can often be a turning point in the development of a young student. Although the requirement to pass a literacy test before moving to the fourth grade has been delayed two years, the emphasis on literacy remains.
Lastly, we implemented an A-F grading system, to acknowledge high achievement in our K-12 school system and to identify areas where we must improve.
All of this has been coupled with an effort to form greater partnerships between common education, higher education, Career Tech, and the business community in the hopes of delivering a more integrated pipeline from education to good-paying jobs and careers.
Preparing our citizens to succeed in a more competitive economy is not just an Oklahoma problem, it is a national one. In fact, addressing this problem has been the focus of my chairmanship at the National Governors Association, a bipartisan organization representing the nation’s governors.
Solving this problem, however, requires state-level action. It requires a commitment to reform. Above all, it demands recognition that the status quo is no longer adequately serving Oklahoma students in today’s competitive, global job market.
My job as governor is to push forward, to demand more, and to work with teachers, parents, and administrators to ensure our students graduate high school ready to continue their education and become college and career ready. Nothing is more important to the individual prosperity of our students or the continued prosperity of our state.