Michigan Labor Force Needs the Common Core

This is the first in a recurring series of posts from local PTA members discussing the Common Core Standards and how they impact states and local school districts. Today’s post comes to us from Joyce Heideman, a parent of a recent high school graduate and the owner of a small animal veterinary clinic in Lansing, Michigan. Joyce is a member of Michigan PTA.

I am not an educator, nor am I a policymaker, nor do I have a school age child at home anymore, but when the Michigan House subcommittee on education held hearings regarding the Common Core State Standards, I attended every single one. You see, I own a small business, and I have a 20 year old son that recently graduated high school, so I have a vested interest in education. There were 4 days of hearings and over 15 hours of testimony, for and against Common Core. Initially, I went as a proud, but not so informed, advocate for the standards. In the end, I emerged as a much more educated and stauncher supporter of the Standards.

As a small business owner, I have noticed an alarming trend in the high school graduates that I interview and employ. My business is a veterinary clinic, and I hire employees to answer phones, work with clients, care for the animals, and help me in the exam room. As a standard part of my interview process, I administer a short basic skills test. This is a 7 question test on relevant skills such as spelling and math. For example (and these are actually on the test); “How do you spell Dalmatian?” or “What is 10% of 50?” All seven of the questions are a similar caliber of question. Over the last 20 years that I have been administering this test, the trend has been that fewer and fewer applicants can pass this test. Now, I don’t mean pass with 100% correct, I mean correctly answer at least 4 out of 7 questions. In the last 3 years, less than 50% of applicants pass this test. That is down from 65% just 10 years ago, and from 90% 20 years ago. Remember, these are all high school graduates, and some of them even have had a year or 2 of college. I have the jobs available, but can’t find applicants with basic skills to fill them. Sure, I could (and have from necessity) hired individuals who couldn’t spell or do basic math. I could spend my time correcting their misspellings on medical records, instead of concentrating on my patients. I could have my other employees monitor all monetary transactions. But the question for me is: why should I have to do this with high school graduates?

During the hearings, I heard from several businessmen that told basically the same story. They have many jobs open in their businesses, but they can’t find the applicants in Michigan to fill them. It is disturbing that in a state with such a high unemployment rate so many vacant jobs go unfilled because the labor force lacks the necessary basic skills to perform them. Granted, some of the jobs available are knowledge-based and skilled jobs that require more than just a high school education. But, companies are willing to train them. They just have a hard time finding applicants that can read and comprehend the training texts.

A recent Business Leaders of Michigan survey showed that “54% of small and medium businesses and 56% of large businesses in Michigan found that applicants do not have the skills necessary to meet job requirements” (Pg. 11). If business owners are unable to find the workers in Michigan to fill these jobs, they must give them to somebody else, from someplace else! And, if they can’t attract skilled workers to Michigan (because, for example, employees want good schools for their children), then they may be forced to move these Michigan-based plants to another state, or even another country.

This is the “career ready” aspect of education standards, and it is really important to Michigan. We need to be graduating students that can move right into these jobs, or at least can read and understand informational texts to be trained “on the job.” The Common Core State Standards are rooted in this concept. They are designed to produce high school graduates that are career and college ready. The Common Core Standards set the bar higher by focusing on building a deeper understanding in Math and English Language Arts. To this foundation, they bring in more relevancies by shifting some of the focus to informational text. These are the texts that Michigan kids looking for a good paying career are going to need to be able to understand. The Common Core State Standards set the bar higher so that by reaching this bar, graduates are prepared for the higher expectations of career and college.

The Common Core State Standards are standards. They are not curriculum. They do not tell teachers what to teach. They do not tell districts what text or curriculum to use. They do lay out a clear, focused destination for where students should be by graduation. And, unlike three quarters of the current state standards that the Common Core will replace, the new standards are more rigorous and more career and college relevant.

If the state of Michigan adopts the Common Core standards and implements them judiciously and properly, businesses in Michigan will not need to look to other states for applicants that meet job requirements. Michigan graduates will be able to fill these jobs, or fill jobs in other states, or other countries, if they choose to. Michigan needs a workforce that can compete locally, nationally, and globally. The Common Core State Standards are the first step to making that happen.