Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Who will take a risk for these kids?

Government risk taking sure sounds like an oxymoron and it's a damn shame that most of the time it is.

Several years ago, Dr. Norwood Brooks, President of Seattle Vocational Institute started the "Career Link" program that offered high school drop-outs an opportunity to go back to school and get their GED. More importantly, the program was integrated with getting these students a certificate in a trade that would lead to a good job. Students would go to school studying for their GED exam at the same time that they enrolled in a pre-apprenticeship, office or health care programs. Over half of the 400 students enrolled graduated - a major accomplishment since without the program none of them would have.

Enter the Seattle School District. An attorney with the district told the college that the program was a problem since since the students weren't enrolled in a "high school graduation" program (it was a GED/Trade program) that the students would count against them when calculating their results for No Child Left Behind. Scores were bad enough and the last thing they need is more penalties associated with failing schools (the accounting applies to the district the students would have been enrolled in rather than the college) They indicated they could no longer support the program. No risk takers there.

Elsewhere in the state the State Auditor enters the picture. His bean counters looked at the law and interpreted it to say that the program didn't lead to the statutorily defined high school degree consequently it was inconsistent with state law and could not utilize state funds. No risk takers here either.

Student advocates went to the legislature and worked on a bill that would have required school districts to enter into contracts for these program or the colleges could go elsewhere for approval. However, last year, the Senate Ways and Means Committee staff successfully argued that if the legislature passed the bill, that more students would be enrolled in school and that would cost the state more money. The bill died in committee. No risk takers here.

This year, to get around the Ways and Means staff, a watered down bill was sent to the committee. The bill doesn't require school district to allow drop-out retrieval programs but creates a process where it is more likely to be approved. The bill passed but college leaders were told that the process of just writing the rules and and going through the public process would take over a year. How long it would take to negotiate with the school districts beyond that is still and open question.

The bottom line here is that when it comes to taking care of our most at - risk kids, the adults aren't wiling to take any risks.

I think there is something more here I will explore in future blogs - how do you encourage risk taking by public servants? How do you allow people who care and work on the front lines to take the risks needed to solve real public problems?

This year

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Washington State Ranks at the Bottom on College Continuation

We Washingtonians have a pretty high opinion of ourselves. We host some of the most knowledge intensive industries in the world from Amgen and Fred Hutch to Microsoft and Amazon. And we hang out in some of the swankiest coffee places in the world like the original Starbucks or Tullys.

Before I throw a bunch of statistics at you let me get to the point. We are doing very poorly when you look at the percentage of high school graduates who continue on to college. When you factor in high school graduation rates - it looks even worse. Only a third of the 9th graders in Washington end up as college Freshmen.

According to the National Center for Higher Ed Management Systems, we rank 44th in the country in college continuation. Less than 45% of public and private higher school graduates were enrolled as freshmen in any post secondary education program. If you want to take a longer look, like the percentage of 18-24 year olds enrolled in post-secondary education, we rank 45th.

Ok. Here is where it gets really depressing if you factor in high school graduation. Looking at number of fall first-time freshmen enrolled anywhere in the U.S. divided by the number of 9th graders four years earlier, we rank 47th. Only about a third of the freshmen are in college in year 13. The national average is 42% and the top 5 state average nearly 60%.

What do we do about this? A few years ago the legislature directed the workforce board to do a survey of financial aid specialists, employment office job staff and students themselves as to what the barriers are to post secondary enrollment and completion, the biggest barrier was financial aid followed by lack of information on how to navigate college and work.

There's been a lot of talk about providing a free 13th year of education at a community college or university and the House Economic Development Chair, Phyllis Kenney and Speaker Frank Chopp have created a program called Opportunity Grants that is designed to reach this goal of a universal 13th and 14th year with income support and navigations services. But budget cuts have stymied both of these efforts.

The City of Seattle working with our school district, community colleges, foundations, business, labor and community groups need to own this problem. Our whole community needs to own it. Perhaps we should set goals for our city schools and colleges, identify best practices to get there and combine our funds and see if we can make progress.

Educational Attainment - Years of Post-Secondary Education

Portland economist Joe Cortright has done some interesting work with a new measure of metropolitan educational attainment known as years of post-secondary education (YPSE). This measure provides a broad measure of education that includes people who have received associate degrees and professional certifications not just bachelor's degrees or higher.

The YPSE is defined as the average number of years post-secondary education completed by persons aged 25 and older and is based on the annual American Community Survey.

Seattle/King County fares pretty well using this measure. The average YPSE is 2 years as compared to 1.9 in Portland or 1.58 in Phoenix and we rank 8th among metropolitan areas in the country.

The weakness of this measure as a benchmark for success is that for an in-migration city like Seattle, we may end up taking credit for the attractiveness of our environment rather than the achievement of our own schools.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Today's workforce is tomorrow's workforce

The biggest bottleneck to our economic recovery might be the lack of skilled workers in key sectors of our economy. If we don't have the skilled workers in the clean energy, global health, business services and other growing industries, we could lose competitive advantage to nations who are investing in these industries now.

What do we do? First of all, we have to recognize that today's workforce is tomorrow workforce. Our workforce turns over at between 1% and 2% per year. That means that for at least the next 26 years, workers already working will still fill a majority of jobs.

This means that we have to up the skills of low skilled workers so they can fill the higher skilled jobs. This is going to be a challenge. Workers under 34 have lower education levels than those over 34 (we may the only country in the world with this problem). Demographically, immigrants are the fastest growing portion of the workforce and in many cases language skills are lacking.

The state legislature is struggling with funding retraining for dislocated workers and state budget cuts are reducing capacity at community colleges. We have a lot at stake here. Something has to change.