DALLAS--How do you measure the success of an education system? Graduation rates? Getting kids past the university gates? At the U.S. News 2012 STEM Summit, state STEM experts talked about the weaknesses of common educational indicators-and the damages that focusing on simplistic data can do to schools on a state and national level.
Improving high school graduation rates, for example, can distract from the issue of college readiness.
"When 60 percent of entering [college] freshmen need remedial ed, we have an even bigger problem on our hands than just raising the high school graduation rate in our state," said Celina Bussey of the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.
John Fitzpatrick, executive director of Educate Texas, a Texas education reform advocacy organization, agrees that sending more kids to college can be an excellent first step, but it by no means signifies success. He points out that only 56 percent of students in Texas graduate from four-year institutions within six years. For community colleges, the rate is even lower: 30 percent.
"It is every man and woman for yourself, and particularly for our first generation kids that go into higher ed. They are struggling, and they are not graduating at rates we can be proud of," he says.
The discussion is particularly relevant at a time when jobs are scarce in the United States. Many employers complain of a skills shortage -- an inability to find qualified workers, particularly those educated in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Combine that with a 7.9 percent unemployment rate for people with "some college" or an associate degree, which is nearly as high as the 8.1 percent jobless rate for those with only high school diplomas, and the question of college completion seems crucial to boosting America's economy. The jobless rate for those with bachelor's degrees or higher currently stands at 3.9 percent.
Part of the solution, says Bussey, lies in considering what exactly a given diploma means. That means determining what skills a high school or college graduate should have.
Another is allowing the slow-moving behemoth of policy to become more nimble, says James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition. "Ten or 15 years ago we didn't look at comp sci as a nationally significant field," he says, but now, there are major employment gaps in the computer sciences area. Making a policy that allows the education system to adapt with the times will be vital to making sure kids not only graduate and progress in their education, but with the most valuable skills, he said.