insights (2008-01)

Fueling an Economic Renaissance

insights

The crazy year of 2007 has come to an end, and the future looks brighter on most Knoxville fronts. When the word â“futureâ” is spoken aloud, the quickest and simplest association is â“education.â”

Education is what matters most in looking forward to a more fulfilling and prosperous time to come for the city and its region.

Potential for measured, quality growth in the area economy has never been higher, and the learning of new skills has never been more important. Think for a minute about the planned growth of the University of Tennesseeâ’s flagship campus, where controversy over the universityâ’s mission statement gave way this past year to a new spirit of cooperation toward academic improvements and research expansion. Led by two strong academician/administrators in President John Petersen and Chancellor Loren Crabtree, UT and its Knoxville campus are poised for the pursuit of true 21st-century goals across the spectrum of higher education.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its UT-Batelle partnership continue to grow and provide potent spinoff opportunities in high technology. The sciences are flourishing at the graduate level, and UT undergraduates are motivated to excel by the terms of their Hope scholarships and other incentives from the UT endowment.

All of this promise brings us back to the concept of preparation in primary and secondary education at the pre-K through high school levels. There have been marked improvements in the standardized test scores of students, both in many Knox County schools and those in surrounding counties, but those advances are not nearly enough to make our workforce competitive.

State and national averages are not what we should be seeking or be satisfied with. Such scores donâ’t attract the kinds of demanding new industries we need to bring into our regional mix if we are to sustain, let alone improve, our economy. We have a governor in Phil Bredesen and at least one U.S. senator in Lamar Alexander who think about education day and night and are demonstrably willing to push for more and better learning tools and designs.

Fortuitously, as well, Knox Countyâ’s public school system is in the process of identifying the best candidate to lead the system. That person, once hired, will be challenged in ways no past superintendent has beenâ"certainly not since the Industrial Revolution was swaying Americaâ’s way in the early 19th centuryâ"and educational leadership is a much more complicated role today. The horizon is a moving target. Young people coming up through the public schools will likely be required to perform several jobs (each of which might have been a career in the last century)during the next 30 or 40 years.

Competition for those jobs comes not across the state and nation, but across international boundaries that barely exist.

There are millions upon millions of students coming up through the school systems of India and China right now who are being taught all the technical skills to achieve a vast economic uplifting of their societies. Our students must be taught, and encouraged to learn, more than the fundamentals of a burgeoning technocracy.

Producing well-rounded, creative individuals requires a broader approach. The study of music, for example, elevates cognizance in mathematics. Arts education improves understanding of the sciences and stimulates creativity in scientific research and application.

If we are unable to mold a corps of new revolutionaries among our young in terms of their view of the world and its challenges, we canâ’t hope to bring on the sort of American renaissance in the production of ideas and products that will permit this country to maintain its pivotal position as the engine of the worldâ’s economic dynamic.

Itâ’s a huge order, and weâ’ve already been falling behind the curve. The place to start is here and the time is now. Elections in 2008 will dictate whether we can finally get out of the blocks.

Give us a school board that gets the picture. Give us a County Commission that gets the big picture, considering its hold on the school systemâ’s purse strings. And give us school administrators from the top on down who are ready to draw that picture to suit the demands of tomorrow.

The future does look brighter, but it must reach an educational flash point. Donâ’t, please, let it grow any dimmer before we ignite the flame. â" Barry Henderson

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