My view: Business community needs to help fix Prosperity 2020

By Paul Mero

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, Prosperity 2020, the Governor's Office of Economic Development and key partners from industry and education announce strategies for becoming a top 10 center for technology jobs and businesses on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. School children interested in science, math and technology stood at the podium with the governor.

Laura Seitz, Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

Here’s the bad news: Utah’s highly touted Prosperity 2020 plan, which aims to have 66 percent of Utahns with college degrees, 90 percent of school kids proficient in reading and math, and Utah as a leader in science in technology, all by the year 2020, will fail as currently planned.

Here’s the good news: Prosperity 2020 can be turned around in time to get close to its lofty goals.

The current plan centers on massive amounts of new taxes streaming into the current public school system and hoping that more money will achieve big goals. It won’t work.

The current Prosperity 2020 vision is grounded in 20th-century methods and ideas that fail to effectively educate enough children in math and science. The rest of the world, including nearly every kid with a smartphone, has moved on — and so must Utah. I have grandchildren as young as 18 months old who can open an iPad, skip through the security panel and get into their favorite games. Using an iPad doesn’t mean you can build one, but it does mean youth today are more in tune with technology than any other generation in world history. In other words, this generation has a natural advantage on the road to technological proficiency.

To turn around Prosperity 2020, Utah’s business community needs to get serious about its objectives. If the goal is a well-educated future workforce in a high-tech age, Utah’s business community cannot command-and-control this political agenda from the top down — it needs to get its hands dirty in education.

First, Utah’s business community should focus on improving K-12 education. The real goals of Prosperity 2020 should be for high schools to elevate their courses to college-level learning and for elementary schools to focus on liberal arts.

Advanced placement courses in high school should be the rule, not the exception. A college degree, then, becomes graduate level, and kids who don’t need that type of degree can move on to applied trades.

Second, except for kids whose home life is worse than daycare, Utah’s business community should leave preschool concerns to parents. For all but truly neglected kids, programs such as Head Start don’t work. Save your ammo. Or, if you truly care about preschoolers, encourage family structures that are proven to benefit children.

Third, Utah’s business community should focus on quality education, not its quantity. A successful business requires more than people with dime-a-dozen college degrees. What good is having 66 percent with college degrees if 66 percent is the new 40 percent?

To achieve its interests, Utah’s business community should stop calling for higher taxes and use its own money to invest directly in schools. Adopt schools — like IBM has done in New York City boroughs — and provide incentives for students to excel in whatever field of endeavor a business needs to encourage. If businesses need science and tech workers, adopt a school, get your hands dirty at the ground level, and incentivize science and technology in certain schools. Give students internships and mentors. Pay them to work. Let them feel what it’s like to work in science and tech. And accept specialty “certificates” along with diplomas.

There is a world of educational innovation swirling around us. If backers of Prosperity 2020 really want an industry-ready workforce for the 21st century, they need to do what successful businesses do best: innovate. Throwing more money into a system that clings to old ways while failing each year to educate tens of thousands of children, especially minority children — effectively condemning them to a future of educational mediocrity — is not only a disservice to students, it’s also an insult to Utah’s great teachers and parents who really do want to see students excel.

Paul Mero is president of Sutherland Institute.

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