Time to Pay It Forward for Better Educated IT Workers

CIO's Publisher Emeritus Gary Beach knows American students lag behind other countries in STEM and thinks McKinsey's 'Closing the Talent Gap' report may be on to something. Is it time we incentivize our best students to forgo the private sector for jobs in public education?

In my last letter, I discussed how over the past decade, international science and math assessment tests have continually shown American students falling further and further behind their peers in other countries.

And now everyone from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to both presidential candidates are making science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education a strategic priority.

Many CIOs have also made it a priority. They regularly tell me that the public school system is not producing future workers with the collaboration, critical analysis and communication skills businesses need to effectively compete in today's economy.

So what should American policy-makers do? We already invest $583 billion a year, or about $10,500 for every one of the 49 million students enrolled in K-12 public schools. The United States invests more in public education than any other country.

The main finding of the "Closing the Talent Gap" report from McKinsey and Company is that quality teachers matter most. (You can read the report online at: http://mckinseyonsociety.com/closing-the-talent-gap.) The top-performing countries in math and science assessment tests, like Finland and Singapore, have made it a national priority to hire teachers--particularly elementary school teachers--from the top 30 percent of college graduates. Some only hire from the top five percent.

What do we do in the United States? We typically hire teachers from the bottom third of college graduates. Why? The starting pay for K-12 teachers can't complete with the lure of private-sector salaries.

The report concludes that in order for U.S. schools to improve down the road, our nation must start hiring new teachers from the top third of college graduates. If CIOs reading this agree with that finding, are they also willing to endure some hiring pain now if it yields more competent workers in the future? Because a strategic national policy that strongly promotes steering the best of our college graduates into teaching careers means that those graduates would no longer be headed for careers with your company.

There are other questions. Chiefly: How we would fund such a change in teacher hiring given current economic conditions? Even McKinsey's report admits this strategy would not be inexpensive.

Have you read this report? Email me your reaction.

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