Minnesota’s ‘Think Big’ effort aims to produce ‘World’s Best/Smartest Workforce’

Creative Commons/Josh Grenier
Minnesota is going to need every single kid, from every single demographic, to be educated and motivated.

Sometimes, politicians do think big. Sometimes, pols even do more listening than talking.

Tuesday night, for example, members from a number of House education-related committees gathered to take on the subject of “The World’s Best/Smartest Workforce.”

This hearing was the idea of Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth.

Marquart, a social studies teacher by profession, is among those pols who seem to believe that the Legislature is capable of more than partisan bickering.

And for at least one night, DFLers and Republicans sat and listened to a long list of speakers who talked about Minnesota’s future and what must happen for the state to remain economically strong and retain its quality of life.

The focus was education and, at times, some of those testifying tossed around such phrases as “encourage innovative solutions at the local level.” Words such as “cohorts” and “aspirational” prompted a few glances at wristwatches.

And someone might want to clue in presenters that after about 15 PowerPoint presentations, all graphs and bullet points begin to look alike.

The coming changes

But mostly, this was pretty straightforward stuff:

• Minnesota’s getting older fast.

• 70 percent of Minnesota jobs will require education beyond high school by 2018.

• The fastest-growing portion of our under-age-18 population is kids of color, and they have the lowest high-school graduation rates.

Kathy Annette
Blandin FoundationKathy Annette

It’s not hard to see what happens in Minnesota if those fundamentals aren’t addressed — and quickly.

The one “must” to come out of the three-hour session: The state must start getting to kids who are growing up in poverty before they get to kindergarten.

An early start means those kids can compete in the classroom. Without an early start, they won’t.

No one was more passionate about that subject than Kathy Annette, president of the Blandin Foundation.

The door “closes” on kids by the age of 5, she said, if they haven’t been exposed to pre-K programs. Those programs are in their infancy – and even in Gov. Mark Dayton’s pro-kid, pro-education budget, there’s not a huge kick start.

“What are you waiting for?” Annette asked the legislators. “What are we all waiting for?”

Shortage of top tech talent

There was another message heard throughout the course of the testimony. There are more good-paying jobs in Minnesota than qualified job candidates.

“Top tech talent is hard to find in Minnesota,” said Rick King, chief operating officer of  the Technology division of Thomson Reuters, which once upon a time was West Publishing. “You could say that in the technology area, we have full employment in the Twin Cities.”

But training more people for ever-changing tech jobs is not a simple matter.  Our institutions — be they political or educational — don’t move as rapidly as changes in technology.

Rep. Paul Marquart
Rep. Paul Marquart

King noted, for example, that there is a big need at his company for website developers. The demand is so high that the University of Wisconsin-Stout is creating a degree in web development.

But that’s not as easy as it might appear on paper. First, the school has to find people who can teach the discipline before it can offer it.

“So the program’s not going to be available until 2014,” King said, “and that means we won’t have the first graduates until 2018. By then, maybe it will be obsolete.”

So these were the sorts of real-world problems legislators were hearing about on a cold February night.

Good news, bad news, hopeful news

There was good news: Minnesota’s best high-school students are outperforming most states and countries in the world in math.

There was bad news: The black-white education gap in Minnesota is near the worst in the U.S.

There was hopeful news: Companies still are motivated to come to Minnesota because of the quality of the workforce.

There were ideas on how to make the educational system work better:

• Start working with kids, especially from impoverished backgrounds, long before kindergarten.  (The achievement gap can start showing up as early as 18 months.)

• Make sure all third-graders are reading at grade level.

• Motivate adolescents to think about career options by middle school/junior high.

• Keep motivating high school students by talking to them about their career hopes and career opportunities.

• Offer ever-more college credits in high school.

• Get a grip on college tuition costs.

Most of the legislators were attentive. Some were even highly attentive.

Marquart was pleased.

“It’s time for Minnesota to think big again,” he said.

Shaping the education finance bill

But was this anything more than theoretical babble?

“What you heard tonight is going to be the basis of the education finance bill,” Marquart vowed.

Can a legislative body that can so easily get sidetracked into partisanship really take on big things?

Tom Stinson, the state’s economist, said there will be great rewards for those places that have a highly educated workforce.

“Unlike any time in history,” Stinson said, “labor and talent will be the scarce resource that all will be seeking.”

Stinson, and a number of other presenters, laid out the state’s future clearly to the legislators: Minnesota is going to need every single kid, from every single demographic, to be educated and motivated.

“This discussion can’t just end now,” said Marquart. “It has to be at the center of every committee meeting; it has to be going on in our communities across the state.”

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 02/20/2013 - 10:11 am.

    Savaging the system.

    With the continuous degradation of our public school system I do not think this nation is going to be producing the “best and brightest” in large numbers. The capitalized educational system, just kicking off, is set to spin up the products of “education” for increased priofits, not smarter students. For the average human student, this means less education in a less well funded public venue. Home schooling and charter schools now handle communicating the proper dogma with the “education” to a larger degree. Private schools have always been desireable, and are even moreso now, but cost prohibitive for many. So look to a continuous decline brought on by a values system that is now a corporate profit oriented values system rather than a human quality of life values system.

  2. Submitted by Tim Milner on 02/20/2013 - 10:49 am.

    This is all nice but

    according to some family and friends who teach in elementary schools in both the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota, the key education issues they face are:

    1 – The instability of families leading to kids being moved from school to school during the year and falling behind with each and every relocation. Some of this is poverty driven (needing to use temporary shelters) and some of it is family dynamics (divorce, single parents). One Minneapolis teacher told me that 53 different kids have come through his 1st grade classroom this year!! (His room is set for 26). This seems to be the universal complaint of the inner city teachers – students who are not consistently in the same classroom for the entire year.

    2 – The expectation from parents that their child will be taught in the “way he/she learns best”. This shifts the focus from group learning to individualized learning. The time and administration costs of creating individualized lesson to meet parent desires is taking up a substantial amount of what should be instructional time.

    3 – In the desire to be inclusive, time spent on developing proficiency in English language skills is being reduced and in many case replaced by 2nd language and other cultural diversity teaching. While I personally support the value in diversity and foreign language skills, I fear, from the job applicants I see, that we are starting to create a group of illiterate students by not forcing English language proficiency.

    I don’t see these 3 issues reported on very much when focus groups/forums meet. I hope they are discussing these things in depth – the more and more I think about it – I can see how these issues have a far greater impact on future employment than items such as teaching middle schoolers about career options.

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 02/20/2013 - 12:44 pm.

    The need for a college education for everyone is just so much baloney. Anyone should know this. The Strib ran with a story awhile back touting just this nonsense relying on ONE study from the corporate fog machines at McKinsey, which in turn relied on ONE study from an eastern university. That Strib story said 70 percent (70 percent!) of jobs in the next decade would require a college degree!

    Now – they might be able to GET someone with a college degree to take that job given the current depression, but there is NO WAY IN HELL that a college degree is required to do 70 percent of the jobs in the future.

    I called and talked to the researchers of that one study. First – the study DIDN’T say everyone was going to need a college degree in the future; it said everyone would need SOME KIND of post-secondary education.

    When I pointed out that, for example, janitors wouldn’t need post-secondary education the researcher actually said he/she would need an hour of two of training at least to know how to mix the cleaning chemicals – which she ludicrously classified as post-secondary education!

  4. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/20/2013 - 11:20 am.

    I’d settle

    for reasonably well educated.

    I’m in my second year of tutoring at a local middle school, working with 7th and 8th grade students in a number of areas, but with a school-directed focus on math. The students with whom I work are all bright kids, capable of achieving good grades (As and Bs) but who, for some reason, have made it this far with large gaps in their learning. It may be a problem with basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division (“fact families” they’re called today) or in their ability to write a clear and concise sentence and to go from there to a complete paragraph. Most have never learned to read for comprehension. Some have learned to read a question, then seek an answer in the text, without ever having read a complete piece.

    What I’ve been struck by the most is that no one ever seems to have talked to them about how to learn or, once they’ve learned, to demonstrate that knowledge.

    Mastery became a dirty word somewhere along the way, even though we expect them to demonstrate it in order to win their high school diplomas.

  5. Submitted by David Frenkel on 02/20/2013 - 11:23 am.

    failing grade

    Study after study shows how the US is falling behind the rest of the world in educating our children. I still hear phrases like MN is doing better than WI or MN has the best educational system in the US. We have a global world and being the best means being the best against places like India and China. Many large companies are pushing for increasing H-1 visas for foreign workers because they claim they can not find enough qualified candidates in the US. Not getting a high school diploma makes it almost impossible to get a job which means they will go onto public assistance. Too few politicians understand cause and effect. Look at the majority of people in prisons, the vast majority did not attend post secondary schools or even graduate from high school.

  6. Submitted by Eric Andersen on 02/20/2013 - 02:39 pm.

    MN Education System

    David – check out this link. http://nces.ed.gov/timss/results11.asp

    Minnesota 8th graders are in the top six in math and science when compared to other countries. The countries that beat us have virtually nonexistent poverty and/or only educate a select few of their children.

    Minnesota does have a world class education system.

    Can we be better? Of course. But we are doing better that the vast majority of the rest of the world, and the country, when it comes to educating our children.

  7. Submitted by Mike Savick on 02/27/2013 - 08:10 pm.

    Qualified workers

    I am the child of immigrants that were forced to flee Russia so I am not against immigration.
    I wrote a letter to Senator Klobuchar indicating that more immigrant worker visas are bad for this unemployed American and many others. I don’t see any advertisements indicating that rare skills are needed for US businesses. The free marketers are mostly trying to degrade American workers compensation and work conditions. If they really needed specific skills they would train existing workers or hire and train new workers. American workers can no longer afford to train at their own expense only to find no jobs and the usual catch 22 that “you have no experience” and an H1B visa holder gets the job. Many already well trained american workers are well positioned to learn a new skill, a different computer program, etc in a relatively short time.there also should be a public posting of H1b visa holders are employed by each company.

    If businesses honestly need these “skilled” workers than these visas must be tied to employing an American worker to be trained to replace the foreign worker and a large fee paid to an American worker training fund.

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