During his term as Washington's governor, Gary Locke's mantra was "education is the great equalizer." Locke, now the U.S. Ambassador to China, was correct, but in our country today, education is becoming the great separator.
Here's the problem.
First, far too many students drop out of high school -- nearly 7,000 each day nationwide. That adds up to about 1.2 million students a year who don't graduate with their peers.
The consequences are clear. Forbes reports that in 2009, the average high school dropout made $19,540 a year, 40 percent less than their classmates who graduate. The deficit continues into the workplace, where the unemployment rate for dropouts is double that of graduates.
Secondly, even those who do graduate from high school face problems. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, remedial education for incoming college students costs the United States an estimated $5.6 billion a year.
Remedial courses are necessary because high school graduates do not test well enough in math, English, reading or science to get into entry-level college classes. According to Washington's State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, 57 percent of high school graduates entering state community and technical colleges require varying degrees of remedial education.
In the 2009-2010 school year, more than half of incoming students took what were termed "pre-college" courses at a cost of $65.7 million -- money drained from the state's general fund and tuition payments.
An innovative program in Tacoma is changing those statistics.
In 2007, only 17 percent of incoming freshmen at Tacoma's Lincoln High School met middle school standards in math and only 34 percent met reading standards.
In response, the Tacoma Public Schools created The Lincoln Center, a school within a school. The school day was extended from 7:35 a.m. to 5 p.m., students attend Saturday classes twice a month and enroll in summer school, adding 540 hours of study to their school year.
The results were dramatic. Within a semester, the achievement gap between white students and students of color had vanished. Today, more than 90 percent of the class of 2012 is on track to graduate, compared with about 60 percent of their peers at Lincoln High.
We need that kind of flexibility and innovation if we are to improve the value of public education.
Lastly, we are failing to meet the growing demand for graduates skilled in math and science.
Increasingly, jobs require skilled workers proficient in math and science, but a distressing 40 percent of students entering science, technology, engineering and mathematics tracks in college leave their programs in the first year.
These disciplines require time, discipline and hard work to master, and it is difficult to find teachers skilled in those subjects. Too often, teachers who have mastered math and science leave public education for better jobs in business and industry. One solution is to pay math and science teachers higher salaries to keep them in education.
Another is to teach teachers how to teach math and science.
If we are to realize Gov. Locke's goal of making education the great equalizer, we need to keep students in school, ensure they master their subjects before moving on, and find (and reward) teachers who can effectively teach the math and science skills students need to succeed in today's high-tech world.
Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit http://www.awb.org.