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A Publication of WTVP

There are few, if any, issues facing our country today more critical than the transformation of our education system. Yet in 2010—a full decade into the new millennium—we still talk about “21st-century skills” as if that was some sort of futuristic concept.

While the world is changing at a blindingly fast rate, our K-12 public education system struggles to keep pace. As the gap between what we have and what we need continues to widen, we are less and less able to meet the complex challenges of the global economy. This now threatens our very livelihood, “and the forecast is grim,” says the nonprofit Educational Testing Service in a policy report aptly titled “America’s Perfect Storm.”

As we try to dig our way out of the economic recession, the lack of workplace readiness is a considerable hurdle. “Factory Jobs Return, but Employers Find Skills Shortage,” read one recent headline in The New York Times. Despite a large pool of job candidates from which to choose, companies cannot fill their openings—“the problem…is a mismatch between the kind of skilled workers needed and the ranks of the unemployed.”

A sense of urgency is beginning to take hold. The U.S. Department of Education’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, whatever its flaws, was intended to spur reform quickly. At the local level, when significant funding cuts threatened to delay the opening of Peoria’s new math, science and technology-focused charter school, the Caterpillar Foundation stepped up, offering a $500,000 challenge grant to the community, under the condition that the charter school be opened this year. A major employer on the front lines of hiring, it understands full well that there is no time to waste.

Another initiative developed out of this sense of urgency is Peoria Promise, which provides qualifying high school graduates with credit hours to be used at Illinois Central College. A long-term economic development tool, Peoria Promise is intended to build a better educated, better prepared workforce by narrowing the skills gap. With the first Peoria Promise students having recently graduated from ICC, the program is beginning to show its impact.

“Education is an economic issue,” affirms Brian Gordon of the Peoria Educational Region for Employment and Career Training (P.E.R.F.E.C.T.), and “a workforce-centered solution is needed.” Indeed, nothing will have a greater positive impact on our future workforce—and the economic future of our nation—than the transformation of our education system.

From jobs and the economy to poverty and crime, education impacts every other issue, for better or worse. Today’s status quo is indefensible, and innovative solutions—in whatever forms that prove to work—are essential to regaining our position as a global leader in education. The 21st century is not some distant future. It’s unfolding right here, right now, and it’s long past time we prepared for it. iBi

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