Open Letter to Governors—An Education Agenda for 2015 and Beyond

Angela Minnici


Austin, Texas Capitol BuildingColorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently went on record saying that "every governor I know wants to be an education governor." This is the year to finally make good on that promise despite widespread education reform fatigue and looming budget shortfalls. An increasingly diverse student population, revolutions in technology and workforce structure, and increased accountability challenge your state’s public school system to stay in sync. Is your state’s public school system "future ready"? A good starting point is to ask three questions.

Is the education system in your state designed to

  • prepare all students for college, career, and civic life?
  • respond to the changing demographics of public school students?
  • meet our increasingly global marketplace’s rapidly evolving demands?

If you answered “no” or “not sure” to these questions, it’s time to chart a dramatically different education path for your state.  I suggest seven action steps for 2015 to address the needs of students from early childhood through workforce.

Plan for the educator workforce of the future.

What does the educator workforce look like in your state? Are you driving the direction or merely observing it? Richard Ingersoll points out that the teaching profession nationally is rapidly becoming younger and less stable. Is this the teaching force we need to ensure student learning in the 21st century and beyond? Your plan should ensure that the educator workforce your state needs is the one being recruited and address how to effectively deploy that talent so that all students, especially those most at risk, have effective educators. Take pains to address the full educator talent continuum—recruiting the best candidates into the profession, preparing them to succeed, and developing, supporting, and retaining them.

Better connect schooling to workforce skills in demand.

The links between schooling and workforce are broken: business leaders often complain that students lack the knowledge and skills needed for today’s jobs, parents worry that children without a B.A. will be stigmatized, and jobs open to those without post-secondary education are limited and likely to trap workers in poverty. Align education and training programs with the needs of employers in your state by identifying and increasing business and education partnerships, expanding and diversifying career pathways, and strengthening career and technical education programs, among other steps. See the College and Career Readiness and Success Organizer.

Invest in innovative uses of technology to strengthen teaching and learning.

Effectively using technology is an essential skill in today’s workforce but also critical to advancing teaching and learning. Today’s students aren’t just digital natives: they increasingly use digital devices to complete school assignments, stay informed, and network with peers around the world. A tipping point for technology and schooling may be in store soon:  instead of merely enhancing teaching and learning, technology may transform both by better accommodating individual learning styles and facilitating collaboration. Whether through the deeper learning, personalized learning, or blended learning approaches districts are exploring and investing heavily in now, technology could finally help your state unlock instruction—educational policy’s “black box”—and ultimately close achievement gaps.  

Expand access to high quality early childhood education.

Most researchers agree that investments in high quality early childhood education boost achievement and attendance while reducing grade repetition, placement in special education, and, ultimately, juvenile crime. More children, particularly the most vulnerable, need to attend at least two years of preschool to get the full benefits. To expand access to high quality programs, governors should scrutinize different approaches to providing early childhood education, phasing in access to quality preschool for all. Start by ensuring that the most disadvantaged children in a state get an even start.  For the most vulnerable, begin with quality programs for infants and toddlers that include comprehensive services and a strong family engagement component. See Condition of Children Birth to Age Five and Status of Early Childhood Services in California: Synthesis of Recent Research.

Make higher education outcomes more transparent.

States should work to ensure that students and families have comprehensible and easily accessible information about the earnings associated with different institutions and programs—as California’s community colleges do with Salary Surfer. Transparency can help them make choices informed by data on the earnings associated with different programs and institutions. 

Provide stronger incentives for public institutions to be more effective and efficient in helping students succeed. 

Create strong incentives for public higher education institutions to rethink and redesign their core processes—e.g., registration, student advising, course scheduling, and sequencing—to improve student progression and completion and to improve campus efficiency. Redesign, if connected to data analytics focused on student success, such as tools that allow academic departments to closely follow which students are at-risk and on-track, has allowed institutions as varied as Georgia State University and the University of Texas, Austin to sharply improve degree completion and time to degree, benefiting both students and taxpayers.

Improve adult education programs.

Many American adults lack the basic literacy and math skills needed to get and keep jobs, leaving some jobs unfilled or destined to move out of state.  Too many state adult education systems lack funding, effective educators, and quality curricula. Meanwhile, as immigration policy evolves and the number of immigrants increases and the ranks of the working poor swell, the number of adults who will need these services can only rise. Without high quality adult education programs closely aligned to workforce needs and accessible to those who need them, whole-scale improvements to your state’s economy are unlikely. To improve the quality of and access to adult education programs, support professional development for teachers and implement instructional standards to guide instruction that prepares adults for 21st century jobs. Integrate adult education programs to support meaningful job training and transition into postsecondary education. See Infographic: Profile of Adult Education Target Population in the United States.

Your state’s schools will need to be more flexible and dynamic than ever to deliver on the promise of educational opportunity for all. If, as “the education governor,” you invest wisely in education today and take these seven steps as you rethink and find new ways to deliver public education, your state and its students will reap the benefits for decades.

Angela Minnici, a principal researcher at AIR, is director of the Education Policy Center and the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders.