Friday, April 25, 2008

A Nation at Risk, Take 2

This morning's New York Times carried the following Op Ed recognizing the upcoming 25th anniversary of the report "A Nation at Risk," which raised the first alarms about American public education and is often cited as the catalyst for modern school reform movements.

Twenty-five years of hand wringing over the declining quality of American education have done little to reverse the trend. Today, as cited in the article above, less than 70% of our young people graduate from high school (compared to more than 75% 25 years ago); and ranks 16th out of 27 industrialized nation in the percentage of students who COMPLETE college.

This is shameful, and it is hurting our general economy--not just due to a lack of skilled leadership and work force, but perhaps more importantly because of the way declining public education creates a badly-informed electorate. In the last two national elections, large percentages of America's working class--i.e., "red America,"--voted AGAINST their own economic self-interest whenever they voted Republican. The Republican economic agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy and initiatives such as the war in Iraq have caused the staggering burden of national debt to soar--which in turn helps to foster inflation, high fuel prices, and all the other economic woes we currently face. Yet they found a solid base of support amongst working class people: those who have been most directly hurt by these very policies.

A democracy requires a well-informed, questioning electorate. Our nation's founders and many since them knew that an excellent, fully accessible public education system was the key to creating such an electorate. We can't dismiss that knowledge at this late date; and we can't spend another 25 years wringing our hands over how to slowly change our lost public education system. National action is required, and quickly: let's hope that whoever the new resident of the West Wing is has the guts and the wherewithal to do do.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Eternal Optimism of Economic Development

Economic development requires three things: vision, optimism, and a will for change.

By its nature, economic development--creating new opportunities for people--is about shifting life perceptions and expectations from where they have lived their whole life to a new vision for how they might succeed.

In Maine, economic development often looks like the paper mill worker agreeing to learn new skills to function in a small, entrepreneurial, wood composite development shop.

Or a lobster fisherman, who can no longer afford the price of fuel and bait with an increasingly limited number of traps, agreeing to participate in a grant and use his or her seamanship skills to run research trips for scientists who need to study the movement of fish stocks. Or a lobster fisherman who uses his boat for a filmmaking crews, documenting the Penobscot Bay ecosystem.

Or people who have worked blue collar, manual labor jobs all their lives learning computer and communication skills so they can participate in the growth of weath generated by the creative/knowledge economy.

Whatever economic development looks like, it looks like change and ordinary community members spearheading economic development efforts must have the leadership skills to, as Kouzes and Posner have written, "do extraordinary things." Leaders do this by a) modeling the way; b) inspiring a shared vision; c) challenging the process; d) enabling others to act and e) encouraging the heart.

For those of us on the coast of Down East Maine--beseiged by the fall of the fisheries; the inflation of property values; and the desire to maintain independent, worker-owned businesses under pressure from the tourism/services sectors--this is tough work. Try convincing a lobster fisherman in the spring of 2008 that he or she should think about alternative opportunities, the larger economic context, or just the future in general and it is very likely you will hear only about the flat, low boat price for lobsters in relation to rising fuel and bait costs.

Change happens slowly and incrementally. If we are to sustain our communities, we must continue to be voices for change: the message of other opportunities and how they relate to former natural resources based lives must be consistent and strong. We can't worry if only one or two people listen at first: it is the consistency and persistence of the message, our long term belief in and ability to create a vision shared by the entire community, and not just a single component of it, that must carry the day if we are to sustain year-round, rural communities across the U.S.

Being an Eternal Optimist is not easy, and sometimes it feels as if fewer and fewer individuals are willing to take on this role. I for one am going to keep on trying, and hopefully a few of you will join me.