COMMENTARY: Business Coalition Backs Higher Education Standards

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Tennessee is an increasingly attractive destination for business relocations, thanks to a variety of factors, including natural beauty, friendly people and a welcoming business environment. But there’s one thing we could do to move our state into the top tier on any economic development criteria, and that is improve our public schools.

Since 2003, more than 50 corporations have moved their headquarters to Tennessee. These corporations are bringing jobs; but more and more, we are seeing that the 21st century jobs coming to our state require a higher level of knowledge and skill than our graduates are prepared for currently. Auto mechanics program computers. Factory workers work alongside robots. Administrative assistants must possess a command of the language. So if we want Tennessee children to be the ones who fill these jobs, we must give them the skills to do so.

The good news is that Gov. Phil Bredesen and the state legislature have taken the first steps in improving education by setting new standards for public education in Tennessee. The first round of student test scores based on these standards will be released this fall, and I am proud to say that the business community is coming together to speak with one voice in support of these new standards.

AT&T Tennessee, together with the Tennessee Business Roundtable and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry has formed the Tennessee Business Education Coalition to educate the business community about the new standards and why it should matter to them. AT&T has taken a lead in this effort because we have already seen firsthand how difficult it can be to find qualified employees in Tennessee.

For example, to fill 30 positions for our local U-verse expansion, we had to interview nearly 900 applicants to find candidates that fit our hiring criteria.  That is why we are hosting a statewide gathering of business leaders from around Tennessee on Thursday, Sept. 23, to hear from Gov. Bredesen on the latest developments in the push for higher standards.

The state of our public education system is not an issue just for parents; there is a direct link between what happens in the classroom and in the business world. We must increase the level of business support in order to ensure that Tennessee graduates are ready for the jobs that are coming to Tennessee.

The pace of change in our world is increasing. Jobs require more education and higher skills. As business owners, we have to ask ourselves, “Where will we find qualified job applicants?” While the ideal answer is to look right here at home, unfortunately in many instances, Tennessee high school graduates are not on par with their peers across the nation.

Now that they are more in line with national standards, Tennessee’s higher standards will more accurately evaluate our students and their readiness to enter the work force. In 2007, the U.S. Chamber gave us an “F” for truth in advertising, because we were not being honest about how well our students were being prepared.

Compared to students across the nation, Tennessee students are very much behind their peers. While 87 percent of our students were considered proficient by Tennessee standards on the TCAP English test, using national standards, only 26 percent were considered proficient. In math, while Tennessee tests again reflected 87 percent proficiency, national standards showed that only 21 percent of Tennessee students were proficient.

This is a serious problem. Any business in Tennessee wants to hire local talent if at all possible for a host of reasons, but those new hires must be qualified.

We in the business community are working hard to make our voices heard. That is the purpose of our coalition. We must stick with the higher standards. We must give our students an honest assessment of how they are performing relative to the expectations of the world they will inherit. The Tennessee Business Education Coalition was formed to make sure that message is not lost, and it is incumbent upon us to spread that message across the state.

Gregg Morton is president of AT&T-Tennessee and chairman of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
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