Opinion

The Podium

Strategically investing in education

If you think college is too expensive, think about how costly it is if students don’t finish. Less than 60 percent of students enrolled full-time at a four-year Massachusetts public college or university graduate within six years. That graduation percentage might seem shockingly low, but it’s actually not surprising when you consider that less than half of U.S. high school graduates in 2013 were ready for college-level work in math, and only 36 percent were ready in science, according to American College Testing.

Simply put, US high schools are not adequately preparing students to be successful in college. And yet, nearly all the good jobs being created in Massachusetts and elsewhere require the skills, knowledge, and — most importantly –the foundation for life-long learning that students will gain through a college education.

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There is a disconnect between our country’s school system and its job market. To bridge that gap, we need to do a much better job preparing many more students to be successful in college and, ultimately, to graduate with the skills they will need to obtain and to hold high-value jobs.

Schools should not be expected to teach their students everything they need to know for the rest of their lives, but they should be on the hook for teaching students how to learn, so they have the ability to tackle the challenges they’ll inevitably encounter, first in college and then over the course of their careers.

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The education our schools deliver has not kept pace with the advancing role of technology in our economy. While the exact numbers vary, there is widespread agreement that growth in STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) jobs over the next four to six years will far outpace the growth in non-STEM jobs. Yet, of the students produced by our K-12 schools who are prepared for college-level math and science, less than a quarter decide to pursue a STEM major in college. Of that select minority, nearly 40 percent end up leaving those majors before graduation, according to a 2011 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

We can increase the number of students prepared for success in college and the high-tech economy by making strategic education investments that answer four questions.

Will the investment change academic culture by setting higher baseline expectations and leading to significant changes in student performance? In Massachusetts, only 18 percent of students took an Advanced Placement math exam last year – and fewer than one in five low-income students took any AP exam at all. That’s unacceptable. Taking rigorous, college-level classes in high school should be the expectation, not the exception.

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Does it identify and use student achievement metrics to track its success? We need to improve student performance now and should not be wasting time or money on programs that aren’t achieving their goals.

Does it reward success? It will take a tremendous effort on the part of students, teachers, principals, schools and districts to achieve the great results we’re expecting — so when they hit those targets, they should be recognized.

Can it achieve excellent results at scale? The problem we’re facing is too urgent to be solved school by school. We need to reach many more students, and we need to reach them now.

A number of schools across Massachusetts answered these questions positively and already have successful AP programs. Many of them aim to increase low-income student participation in AP math, Science and English courses. The AP program run by Mass Insight has been particularly successful and over the last six years as both participation and performance have more than doubled at Mass Insight’s more than 60 partner high schools. The benefits of the program have extended into college, where students who went through Mass Insight’s program are proving more likely both to enroll and to stay enrolled in college.

These are striking results, but for all the success that Mass Insight’s program has had, there’s still more work to be done. We must set an explicit goal for both the number of students achieving college success and the number of students pursuing STEM majors — and publicly monitor our progress towards that goal. The Massachusetts education department now has data available that tracks how successful the state’s high school graduates are in college. It is data that should be publicly reported for every community and high school across Massachusetts. Getting students to high school graduation is no longer sufficient, but responsibility for increasing college success can’t fall solely on the shoulders of those in education. We urge the region’s business community to take leadership role in this effort by making strategic education investments that support the college success agenda.

Joshua Boger is founder and former CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Rick Burnes is co-founder and partner emeritus of Charles River Ventures. They are founding co-chairs of MassInsight’s Partners in Excellence Program.
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