Op-Ed: Ensuring Young People are Ready by 21
Twenty five years ago, the blue ribbon National Commission on Excellence in Education stunned the country by declaring:
“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. . . If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. . . we have dismantled essential support systems . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”
Well, we’re still a nation at risk. In fact, the risk is far greater today than 25 years ago. And right now we need to harness all of our resources and creative energy toward reaching one goal: ensuring young people are ready by 21. Here’s why.
Are They Really Ready to Work? Employers’ Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce, a comprehensive study jointly designed and executed by Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Conference Board, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Society for Human Resource Management offers three stark realities that undercut our nation’s ability to compete now and in the future:
- Employers report major deficiencies at every educational level. Forty percent report that the overall preparation of high school graduates is deficient, and more than one quarter of four-year college graduates are deficient in their written communication skills.
- Employers place a premium on applied skills that allow workers to bring basic, technical and content knowledge into the workplace. Professionalism/work ethic, communications (oral and written), teamwork and critical thinking are the skills employers now value the most.
- Employers see increased need for a more far-reaching set of skills on the horizon. Foreign language, creativity and innovation, and personal health and wellness management are areas employers believe will become increasingly important over the next five years.
There is an urgent need to prepare our next generation of workers for the competitive challenges of the 21st century, and we cannot afford to approach this issue as business as usual. The time has come to affirm our nation’s commitment to ensuring that all young people are ready by 21 – ready for college, work and life.
There are encouraging signs that we are ready to respond. In late February, six of our nation’s leading nonprofit organizations – the Forum for Youth Investment, United Way of America, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the National Conference of State Legislators, the National Collaboration for Youth, and the American Association of School Administrators – came together to launch the Ready by 21™ Challenge. Quite simply, they are challenging states and local communities to improve the odds that young people will be successful in school, on the job and throughout life. Why?
The current way we approach preparing young people is not working. We fragment our efforts into narrow silos, shifting our focus from one area (such as teen pregnancy) to another (such as youth violence), rotating our attention and resources without ever providing the core family and community supports young people need to succeed. We approach young people as a set of problems to solve (keep them from dropping out, getting pregnant, breaking the law) rather than as a set of resources to develop (preparing them for success). We stare at academic test scores so long that we fail to notice that young people also need to grow in social, emotional, physical, civic and cultural ways.
The Ready by 21 Challenge offers our nation new hope for bringing precision to our passion. It provides a new way of thinking and acting that weaves fragmented efforts into a seamless set of family and community supports, helping people succeed in all areas of their lives.
We can be successful. President Bush recently signed an executive order, “Improving the Coordination and Effectiveness of Youth Programs,” a small first step toward what we hope will one day be the full implementation the Federal Youth Coordination Act passed by Congress. Government and nonprofits are realizing that we have to tackle this growing problem now. We can no longer wait.
Our nation remains at risk. If we wait another 25 years to ensure that our young people are ready by 21, it will be too late.
Karen Pittman is the Executive Director of the Forum for Youth Investment
Donna Klein is the President and CEO of Corporate Voices for Working Families