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MARY KAY MURPHY: The 'new normal' for public education

As we enter the first days of 2010, what are the issues we need to resolve by 2020 to educate all students to their capacity and utilize public education to advance the productivity of Gwinnett County, Georgia and our nation?

One of the first issues to resolve is developing a standard measure of graduation rates state by state, regionally and nationally. Why is this of such importance? Students who earn high school diplomas increase their options for employment in the global work force. Dropping out before graduation reduces work force opportunities.

In 2005, the nation's governors signed a compact that by 2011 all states would use the same definition of "graduation rate" and have robust data systems that replace estimates of ninth-grade enrollment with actual counts.

Having standard measures allows accurate counts of four-year graduates, GED recipients, other completers, dropouts and students still enrolled for a fifth year. Having graduation rates comparable across districts, states and the nation helps identify potential dropouts and ensure that students stay to graduate and compete in the global work force.

Another issue to resolve is closing two achievement gaps in public education. The first is the gap between the lowest- and highest-performing students. Much of the work of the past decade addressed closing this gap. Reauthorization of the Elementary/Secondary Education Act of 1965, updated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, addresses this gap.

Of equal importance is closing the global achievement gap between U.S. students — even our top-performing students — and their international competitor peers. As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, demand is placed on student mastery of 21st Century high-skill, high-wage service economies. Among these are critical thinking, problem-solving and other cognitive skills. The work of this second decade will focus on developing students' skills to survive in economies that are technologically driven.

According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, demographic changes challenge the two achievement gaps. In 2008, the Census Bureau projected that the U.S. population will be older and more diverse by the middle of the 21st century. It also projected that minorities will comprise the majority of the nation's population by 2042, with children expected to be 62 percent minority by 2050, up from 44 percent in 2009.

According to the Southern Regional Education Board, the 16 states of its region will account for most of the nation's overall population growth from 2010 to 2020 — an increase of 13.1 million. SREB predicts that much of the growth will be among minorities who traditionally have been the least likely to attend and graduate from college. During this same period, Georgia's population is projected to grow by 915,900, or 9 percent.

Another issue to resolve is forging links between K-12 education and post-secondary and higher education. Increased diversity in K-12 education will be reflected in college and university, technical college, community college and other post-secondary enrollments from 2010 to 2020. Programs such as middle and high school college preparatory programs, pipeline programs, and early admission will advance the links between K-12, post-secondary and higher education.

Reduced state resources from 2010 to 2020 for K-12 and higher education may result in increased K-16 options, such as three-year baccalaureate programs, elimination of the 12th grade in favor of joint enrollment or other options, and expanded summer school programs.

The decade ahead may be the "new normal," a time for our community to prepare students for success in 21st century global work force and a time when accountability, creativity and innovation will be watchwords for advancing the productivity of Gwinnett County, the state of Georgia and our nation.

Mary Kay Murphy represents District 3 on the Gwinnett Board of Education.