Friday, June 18, 2010

Is It Time To Consider Education Reform?

Is it time to re-think how we educate our children? I am not talking about the normal tweaks to curriculum and classroom instructional delivery – but real reform. As the husband of a kindergarten teacher, the brother of a high school administrator, and one who has many friends who work diligently in the education profession, my thoughts in this column are not to be taken as criticism. I do offer them in the full hope that the topic will become one of deep and reflective thought that then transcends into a community dialogue for all of us who continue to work in making our community the very best it can be.

I mentioned last week that I had just returned from a two-day conference hosted by the Southern Growth Policies Board. Amazingly as each presenter offered recommendations for strengthening and growing the automobile manufacturing sector in the south, the recurring theme was the need for workforce development. Gov. Joe Manchin made the boldest statement of them all. I am paraphrasing, but he basically said that as a society, we spend more on education than any other public service, and our return on investment is unacceptable.

I would agree with the Governor that we spend tremendous resources on educating our children. I would further agree that the return on investment across the nation is inadequate. But I would disagree that great strides are not being made in many communities across our great nation. And those that are making tremendous improvements are doing things differently. They are implementing reforms consistently as the data suggests they should. They are no different than a sports team or business organization that implements change as the performance data suggests they should.

Education as an institution is typically very slow to change. Not because data is not available for making substantive change, but typically because of the politics surrounding such an emotional and passionate institution. But as the data suggest and companies validate, the US education system is not preparing the employees of tomorrow. Our children come out of high school not prepared to work in the jobs of today or tomorrow.

I would suggest two reforms are needed to course correct our direction as a nation. The first reform would be to adopt a balanced or modified school calendar. This balanced calendar is also known as year-round schooling. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book the Outliers, he describes a Baltimore, Maryland study that provides substantial evidence that the traditional calendar contributes to the achievement gap that exist between low-income students and those with higher means.

The study basically argues that children of low income households have little access to educational learning when not in school. Those with means tend to go to camp, have access to books, and visit museums and libraries in the summer months. The over-whelming number of other studies document that year-round learning is positive for educational maintenance and educational improvement.

If the evidence is so profound that a balanced or modified calendar delivers better achievement, why are there so few school districts / schools choosing such a calendar? There are many arguments but two seem to be the most used: a non-traditional calendar interferes with sports, band, and other extracurricular activities, and a year-round calendar interferes with those students who have to or choose to work.

Given all the financial resources we expend to improve the educational achievement of our children, modifying the school calendar is very inexpensive. Consider the physical infrastructure of a school? It is idle or dormant 31% of the time. No business would invest capital in something they were only going to use two-thirds of the time. Why should we invest tax revenue just as inefficiently?

In this day when budgets are requiring school districts to resort to cutting instructional days, a modified calendar could allow learning maintenance to remain at a higher level and for actual learning improvement to occur across shorter breaks instead of the “traditional” summer months. I know that teachers and possibly their unions could be opposed to a modified, year-round calendar, but many I know personally actually endorse this approach.

Another area of reform needed is in the area of technical education. All students must be educated to standards that will enable them to succeed in any post-secondary institution. But all high school graduates will not go to a traditional four-year baccalaureate college. But employers argue that today’s jobs and especially those of tomorrow require education / training above the high school level.

We have tried all types of vocational school models and technical school models with most failing to deliver real talent for the workforce. Expediency wins out over effectiveness. A case in point – because we have a certified cosmetology teacher, and because many students think cosmetology is fun, we offer this curriculum above and beyond what the market can support. And then the problem is compounded when we ignore real needs of industry by not partnering with them in offering training for jobs that are in high demand.

In our local economy, there are urgent needs for training for industrial electricians and industrial mechanics. As Volkswagon and its suppliers ramp up production, those skilled in robotics will be needed. Welders are in constant demand. Consider that the sedan that Volkswagon will produce in Chattanooga will have over 3800 rivets, welders become very important.

Given the tremendous gains our local districts have delivered in educational attainment, and the fruit being produced by the new curriculum developed by the Georgia State Board of Education, we can catapult to nationally respected heights by breaking from the mold in the final two areas. Considering a year-round calendar and really instituting technical education that is market driven will set us apart from our fellow Georgia communities and those across the US.

We have important elections in the next few weeks that will allow for this dialogue to occur or not. Get to know the candidates seeking office and ask them the hard questions about education in our community. We have always been a leading community in entrepreneurial spirit. What could we accomplish if we embraced that same spirit in driving education reform?

The State of the Automobile Industry

This week, Elyse Cochran and I attended the Southern Growth Policies Board Chairman’s Conference. The Southern Growth Policies Board is a Think Tank based at the Research Triangle in North Carolina and is comprised of thirteen southern states. Each year one of the thirteen Governors serves as the Chairman of the Board. Due to Kentucky’s Gov. Steven Breshear being this year’s Chairman, the conference was held in Lexington, KY. The Chairman also chooses the conference theme. This year’s theme was Driving the Next 20 Years: Creating the New Automotive Industry in the South.

Given that our community sits between two major investments of automobile manufacturers, it seemed prudent to participate in this conference. After investing two days at the conference, I can confidently report, the investment was very worthwhile. In addition to hearing from community leaders throughout the south who have automobile manufacturing operations located in their communities, we also heard from the leaders of the companies as well – Toyota, Ford, Daimler. We heard from and interacted with research leaders such as Robert Geolas, the Executive Director of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.

The topics included: An economic forecast by a leading economist from the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, a panel discussion on Seeding and Growing Automotive Plants, a panel discussion on Sustaining and Growing the South’s Supplier Base, a panel on Automotive Intelligence – The Southern Network for Research and Development, and a very interesting panel discussion that included Gov. Steven Breshear of Kentucky and West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin.

After looking at the US Auto Industry from a historical perspective, most of the industry insiders indicated that the effects of the recession have been more severe and more prolonged than any other time in the industry’s history. The industry literally hit a wall seeing sales drop from an annualized volume of 17 million vehicles per year to less than 10 million. Suppliers, who had enjoyed steady and predictable orders month after month and year after year, saw their orders drop in half almost overnight.

Although automobile sales are improving, the forecast for the next two-three years for annual sales remain between 11 and 12 million units. Manufacturers and suppliers have tremendous excess capacity for a number of years out. With KIA and Volkswagon coming online, any new major investments other than suppliers is not likely.

Throughout many of the presentations and panel discussions, the subject of “green” vehicles and “green” technology was plentiful. Electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles were commonplace in each and every session. Interestingly, the forecast / predictions on the level of market share these vehicle types would reach was all over the board. The most enamored industry representative for electric / hybrid vehicles claim that the US would see these vehicles reach 20% of all vehicles. The more skeptical industry representatives place the market share around 2% for these types of vehicles.

Even though consumer interest is high in the new technology, the high costs of batteries and the heaviness of batteries compounded with minimal availability of charging stations for plugging in will prevent widespread conversion to purely electric vehicles in the short-term. Hybrid drive trains and improved fuel economy for the latest improved combustible engines will grow faster than all electric vehicles.

Given the current sales forecast for vehicle sales is well below the industry high point of 2006, the industry has excess capacity from a manufacturing standpoint. And most would make the same argument for the suppliers of parts to the manufacturers. And the excess capacity exists without factoring the new Kia plant in West Point or the Volkswagon plant in Chattanooga. I would argue that this excess capacity is the reason more suppliers have not relocated or expanded into our region for supplying Volkswagon. As capacity is utilized, I believe new supplier activity will occur over time all around the 15 counties surrounding Chattanooga. We need to be ready for when that occurs.

One key takeaway from almost every presentation was the concern over workforce. Every executive from the industry discussed the continued struggle in having enough skilled employees. The discussion ranged from a lack of technical skill development to general work skills (punctuality, professionalism, dependability). Governor Manchin from West Virginia voiced great concern that in his state and most others, the collective investments in education were not producing adequate returns on investment.

And the industry leaders voiced that attracting suppliers and recruiting suppliers would continue to be a challenge due the availability of a trained or trainable workforce. More often than not the reference would be that a high school diploma was the minimal and that one or more years of training / education beyond high school was critical in an advanced manufacturing arena.

I have attended many conferences in my career. Some were more valuable than others. The investment of the last two days was very profitable. As we continue to prepare for economic expansion and investment related to the Volkswagon project, this conference provided invaluable insight into the automobile manufacturing industry.

Our Young People Have Spoken!

One of the strategies of the Archway Partnership Executive Committee is to listen to our community in identifying needs, concerns, and opportunities. In order to listen, the committee has identified different segments of the community where formal focus group discussions will be conducted. One of the groups to have a conversation with is the youth of our community.

Over the past few weeks, Melissa Lu, our community’s Archway Professional, along with other key listeners have visited with many of our young people at many different schools. The answers to the questions posed to them might surprise you. This list is nowhere near exhaustive of all the responses received, but my intent is to tease you into learning more and getting involved in the conversation.

The first set of questions allowed the students to discuss what they liked about Dalton:
• The students think the leaders of this community are accessible, and they love the fact that there are ways to get involved in this close-knit community.
• The students love the parks and tourist attractions. However, they noted that many people don’t know about the best tourist attractions.
• The students think that this is a “decent-looking town.”
Next, we asked the students what they would like Dalton to look like in the future:
• The students would like Whitfield County to be a place where more youth are involved in youth organizations. The students see this as a way to prevent gangs and violence that they see all around them. They want the community to be gang-free.
• The students would like there to be more places for clean, cheap/free, safe entertainment. The students said that they do not need police patrolling every 5 minutes, but that they would like for there to be undercover cops/security officers to prevent the places from becoming “bad.” The students suggested that we create a “Teen Club” that has nightly themes. They suggested that the teen club be free, have a $2 -$5 admission fee, or run off of donations. A follow-up question prompted the suggestion for there to be some type of teen transportation.
• The students said that, in the future, they would like well-funded schools. They said that they want their government to think before they spend money. They said that they would like the city and county officials to consult with the superintendents before building permits are issued so that the school systems can be proactive rather than reactive.
• The students want their parents to be more involved with them. They said that their parents don’t know how to talk to them. They said that kids are getting into gangs because their parents don’t understand what is out there. They suggested that the community/school systems host game nights, parent-child partner competitions, and cheap/donations only spaghetti dinners. They suggested that some of these interactive activities need to be offered in the morning, at lunch, and on the weekends. They stated that they want their parents to recognize the positive things they are doing, not just the negative things.
• The students want a better economy.
• The students want a more recycling-friendly community. They want it to be free. And they want to find a way to incentivize recycling for people who might not otherwise do it.
• The students want street art like the bulldogs in Athens and suggested that we use Peacocks.
• The students want an easily accessible teen art showcase where parents and friends can see their work. They want something like they have at the Fair, but they want it to be open year-round. They want the opportunity to auction off their art.
• The students want a mural in town that they help create.
The idea of the Greater Dalton community considering the idea of becoming a Center of Research, Learning, and Innovation was discussed. The students made the following suggestions:
• We could make storage tubs/containers out of carpet, or string/yarn, or that we find a way to make carpet-powered cars.
• We could become a Center for Interior and Exterior Housing Design.
• The students very seriously discussed becoming the toilet paper capital of the world. The student who introduced this idea into the conversation said that it is her dream to become an entrepreneur. The students discussed how several of the old carpet buildings could be used to make the toilet paper because there are rollers, dye vats, etc. The students expanded this idea and said that we could make paper towels and baby wipes. Some of the students came from countries where there is not enough toilet paper, so they said they know there is a need for it around the world.
The students discussed what would bring them back to Whitfield County:
• Dalton has an old-school (traditional) look with good weather / no hurricanes.
• There are great schools in Dalton/Whitfield.
• Dalton/Whitfield is a good place to raise a family with many supportive organizations here.
• Dalton Whitfield is a close community / home.
In asking for comments that the students wanted their leaders to hear, the following was offered:
• They would like a more cohesive community for students/teens.
• The students stated that it would be great for the superintendents, our mayors and city councils, and other leaders to be involved with them. They said that they wished that their elected officials would talk to them and sit in on their classes / lunches. They want a place where teens can have a say in big decisions. They want the opportunity to tell their leaders how they feel in person.
• They stated that they would like less paving and more planned development.
• They want a student newspaper that gets circulated to everyone in the county. They want the schools to email their families with what is going on.
• They want to go to college and attend summer programs, but many of them can’t because they do not have social security numbers. The students talked at length about the absence of hope when they cannot proceed with their education and discussed how this can result in them joining gangs, etc.
• The students talked about the high school rivalries and suggested it would be good for students to do a school swap for a day.
The responses to these questions were refreshing for me. I was pleasantly surprised that our young people have valid concerns about the community that they live in and call home. They are more connected to the issues facing our community than I have given them credit for. These young leaders want what we all want: a community that is prosperous (jobs), a community that is well-planned, pretty, has public art, and is cared for, and a community where adults (parents and community leaders) listen to them and include them.
I am grateful for Melissa and all the time she put in capturing this wealth of information. And I am grateful to live in a community with young people who care about their community and want to be a part of making it an even better community. The learning and problem-solving possibilities that are available through the Archway visioning process are infinite. What an exciting time we live in!

Leaders Lead

The art of leadership is identifying what needs to be done, laying out a compelling vision, and then inspiring others to work toward executing that vision. Therefore I would argue that the reason that citizens are expressing displeasure in their elected officials is because they are failing in all three of the components of leadership.

You name any issue being debated today and those elected to serve fail in almost all three. And in some cases they have misidentified what needs to be done or at least that they have the authority to do something about the issue. For instance, the tenth amendment of the US Constitution states that powers not granted to the national government nor prohibited by the states are reserved to the state governments or the people of the states. Where does the US Government get the authority to provide funding to foreign nations? Where does the power to mandate healthcare coverage come from?

State government officials (I refuse to call the majority of them leaders) are just as guilty of failing my self-defined three components of leadership. Consider the issue of providing education to Georgia’s children. We have just closed a legislative session where education funding was once again obliterated. Rather than reducing funding as the only means to budget reconciliation, they could have moderated SPLOST rules to allow for funds to be used for operational needs in these times and not solely capital projects.

Consider the healthcare budget shortfall issue. The “leadership” did correctly identify the problem – they needed more money. But the solutions offered were not visionary and not inspirational in execution. They mandated through coercion and threats that the 1.6% bed tax would be agreed to by all or else. In other words, pass the buck to the paying citizens while claiming you did not raise taxes.

Need another example – consider transportation funding. We the State Representatives and State Senators will not raise taxes but we will ask you the citizens divided into twelve different regions to pass a referendum voluntarily taxing yourselves an additional 1% sales tax. Where is the vision? Where is the inspiration of those joining to insure that this great approach is executed?

And finally the issue of immigration…. there are no doubt hundreds of opinions about all that is covered under the term immigration and even more opinions about the approach to the problem the State of Arizona has taken. But under my suggestion that Leaders Lead and that leadership is in fact problem identification, the creation of a visionary approach to fixing the problem, and the inspiration of those necessary to execute the vision – the leadership of the state of Arizona pass all three components.

As the federal government turns a blind eye to the immigration debate, Arizona officials have determined that something needs to be done and are doing it. As a recent article in The Economist notes, the approach that Arizona is taking is not necessarily the right or best approach, but nonetheless their actions have finally created a needed national debate again.

The American citizen is tired of the politics as usual. They are tired of our federal officials putting their collective noses where don’t belong and not focusing on the things they should. And both parties are to blame. Neither has offered well thought out solutions to our problems, but continue to espouse party line clich├ęs and sound bites.

Back to the issues facing Georgia … Are those running for statewide office communicating they understand the issues facing Georgia? Are they offering solutions? And are they able to inspire the rest of us to get on board to help lead us out of the mess we are in?

One of my favorite movies is The American President starring Michael Douglas. In the movie, President Andrew Sheppard says “America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've got to want it bad, because it's going to put up a fight.” Americans, Georgians, and all citizens of every state are starving for leadership. We want leaders working together to accurately identify our core issues. We want them to develop visionary solutions to solving those issues. And we want to be inspired to action.

Over the next few months, each of us have the opportunity to exercise a sacred right granted to us as Americans. The recent 9th Congressional district election indicated that we either don’t believe our votes matter or we were comfortable that any of those on the ballot represented the values or political positions of our community due to the abysmal voter turnout across the district and especially in Whitfield County.

Let me join Mayor Pennington and others in challenging Whitfield County to step up and vote for our next US Congressman in the June runoff. We need to send a leader to Washington who will fight for us and represent us, not the special interest groups. And then in July we need to exercise our right again in determining the right leaders that we feel can lead our nation, our state, our county government, and our county schools.

Our future will be determined by our actions today! We must mandate that leaders lead!

Leadership Development: 25 Years and Counting

On behalf of the Executive Board and the staff of the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce, I would like to extend our congratulations to this year’s graduates of Leadership Dalton-Whitfield. This year’s class of 35 students celebrated the commencement of the 25th Leadership Dalton-Whitfield class on May 13th at the Walnut Hill Farm Event Center. Even after twenty-five years it is appropriate to marvel at the success of this remarkable program and the impact it has made on the leadership of the Greater Dalton community.

The goal of the Leadership Dalton-Whitfield program is to develop informed, confident leaders by exposing participants to community resources, opportunities and issues. Each year, class members gain knowledge of our community through sessions that concentrate on local quality of life, education, economics, local government, the judicial system, state government, medical services, cultural diversity, volunteerism, and leadership skill.

The program is structured such that teamwork and cooperation play a fundamental role in the successful completion of the program. The ideas stimulated by common experiences create synergy that helps to mold the future of Greater Dalton.

Class members are chosen by a Leadership Advisory Committee based on their interest in the community and a sincere commitment to making Greater Dalton a better place to live and work. The Committee selects participants that reflect the occupational and demographic diversity of the community. Class members acquire specific leadership skills, gain a broad base exposure to the community, form relationships with peers in other fields, and learn how networking can benefit both professional and volunteer activities.

It is hard to believe but this year we celebrate our sixth year of the Advanced Leadership Academy. The purpose of the Academy is to motivate the class participants to find their passion so that they pursue service areas that will enable them to invest in change for our community in concert with their passion. Each graduate of this year’s Leadership Dalton-Whitfield class will have an accountability partner to help guide them in becoming more involved in our community.

With this year’s graduation the total number of Leadership Dalton-Whitfield alumni rises to 869. The members of this year’s class will have the opportunity to join the Alumni Association which was created to keep its members connected with local events and issues. Alumni also stay connected through networking opportunities with their peers in the Greater Dalton business community.

Leadership Dalton-Whitfield continues to provide our community well-trained leaders with a heightened awareness of civic stewardship. If you know someone who has completed this program, please show them your support by thanking them for their commitment to our community.
Our thanks also go to Tom Minor, IV, Program Chair, and Steve Pound, Program President, for their leadership and guidance of this year’s class.

Congratulations are also extended to a special group of individuals that participated in the second class of the Chamber’s new leadership initiative - the Emerging Leaders Institute. This program is a first step to identifying young leaders and preparing them for a lifetime of community leadership. On May 11th the Emerging Leaders class graduated 23 leaders that have been trained in leadership skills such as understanding leadership, group dynamics, managing conflict, effective communication, valuing community diversity, building communities through collaboration and leading community change. These new leaders are energetic and enthusiastic about learning more about the community and how they can become involved. Several of the graduates have applied and been invited to participate in next year’s Leadership Dalton-Whitfield program. A big thanks goes to Dan Clark, Shaw Industries, and Angela Gordy, Gordy & Tatum CPAs, who served as co-chairs for this effort.

Leadership Lives Here! is a signature model implemented by your Chamber of Commerce annually. Both leadership programs continue to be successful under the guidance of Phyllis Stephens, Sr. VP for the Chamber. My appreciation and gratitude is extended to all who played a part in another successful year of Leadership development!

The Importance of Social Capital

A few years ago, David Aft, President of the Northwest Georgia Community Foundation, recommended a book for me to read that outlined what was occurring in the US around social Capital. The book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, was written by Robert Putnam. In his bestselling book, Putnam presents an exhausting study of the benefits of social interaction and being plugged into our communities. He also states that our collective social capital increased throughout the first two-thirds of our country’s existence and then abruptly reversed that trend in the later third.

Not wanting this column to seem like a series of twitter blasts or tweets (if you do not know what a tweet is or, ask a teenager); I will outline a few brief examples that will agree with Putnam that social capital is important. I will also argue that Dalton has immense social capital and it seems to be growing.

I, like many of you, attend many community events. In the last few weeks, it seems that I have attended something one to two times per week. And I have to confess, I reluctantly attended a few out of obligation not desire. In order to argue that Dalton has tremendous social capital, let me provide a few brief examples of recent events.

The recent Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame Banquet was a wonderful evening highlighting the tremendous efforts of the honorees: Dr. Don Thomas, Bob and Dixie Kinard, and the rising star honoree, Casey Carpenter. What a fantastic night held in honor of true servant leaders. Junior Achievement, in honoring the Hall of Fame Laureates, was equally deserving of being honored as well. Under the leadership of Judy Norris, the Northwest Georgia Chapter continues to reach and educate thousands of our children within our region. Congratulations to Dr. Don, Bob and Dixie, and Casey. And thank you Judy Norris and all who serve on the Junior Achievement Board.

As a Rotarian, first in the Carpet City Club and now in the Dalton Club, I would be remiss if I did not compliment the work both of these clubs provide for our community. Both were recently recognized at the annual Rotary District Conference with the Dalton Rotary Club being named the best club in the entire district. Under the Leadership of Nancy Kennedy and a very strong board, the noon Rotary was exemplary in all measured categories. Both Rotary clubs along with our Kiwanis Club, Civitan Club, Lions Club, and many more Civic Clubs give back to our community each and every day.

One of the Dalton Rotary Club’s projects is to participate in interviewing graduating seniors from Dalton High School. These interviews are to further prepare them as they leave High School for college or the workplace. Barbara Ward, a Rotarian and future retiree from DHS, organizes these interviews as a final learning opportunity for these students. Over the course of a few days, most of the graduating class is interviewed by Barbara and a fellow Rotarian. These interviews for me were powerful and encouraging. Our young people are leaving High School prepared for life. Thank you Barbara and all that assisted in these interviews.

Just this week, I along with a couple hundred others, had the privilege of playing in the Roman Open Golf Tournament. Even in these very difficult, unprecedented economic times, the tournament was wonderfully supported. The organizing committee and the leadership of the Roman Open deserve a collective community thank you. They put on a first class tournament and raised significant resources that will benefit many of our fellow citizens.

I could go on and on … but I simply wanted to make the case that our community’s social capital is abundant and seems to be increasing. If we want to continue making our community the best that it can be, increasing our social capital will be extremely important. Not only is social capital good in a collective sense, but the individual benefits are immeasurable.

In this day of texting instead of talking and playing video games instead of team sports, having organizations that work together for the greater good are critical. Greater Dalton is blessed to have many such organizations and opportunities for people to plug in. For your individual happiness and for the betterment of our community JOIN IN!

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