World affects academic choices

First Posted: 1/15/2009

Last week I talked about the world and how it is changing. The European economy is a powerful force in the world. It is now the largest and richest consumer market in the world. The Asian economy is an even more powerful force. Jobs and businesses are leaving the United States for these areas. We are in competition with the entire world. Information and information technology are critical drivers of all components of the economy. These changes will have a profound effect on the careers of our children and the economic well-being of our society. Such changes should be reflected in the state context. That is what I want to look at in this article.
The state Board of Education sets the directions for public education in North Carolina. This group determined that students in North Carolina public schools need 22 credits to graduate. I do not think these requirements provide the necessary guidance to students and parents. Given the new world economy, all students should need to take four mathematics credits and at least one course in chemistry or physics. All students should be required to take at least one course in information technology. All students need more formal exposure to the world of work. For students planning to go to university, there is not enough emphasis placed on foreign languages.
A major problem with my plan is staffing. Teacher salaries in North Carolina are very low. As a result, it is extremely difficult to attract highly qualified teachers in the areas of mathematics, chemistry and physics. There is not much sense in mandating courses for which you cannot hire teachers.
The most recent statistics I could find from the University of North Carolina system show some of the disconnects between the world we are trying to be competitive in, and the world many students and parents think exists. The 16 institutions that make up the University of North Carolina granted 37,481 bachelors degrees in 2003-2004. They granted 4,849 degrees in social sciences, 2,958 degrees in public affairs, and 2,379 degrees in communications. By comparison, UNC granted 421 degrees in mathematics, 1,290 degrees in computers, and 2,325 engineering degrees.
Mathematics, computers, and engineering are areas of study that can produce economic wealth for the nation. Advances in these areas create new products and can produce new job opportunities. In total, UNC granted 4,036 degrees in these areas. By comparison 10,186 degrees were granted in communications, psychology, and public affairs.
This comparison is not provided to suggest that UNC is doing anything wrong. The university system offers a full range of programs, students and parents then make choices. This comparison is not provided to suggest that psychology, communications and public affairs are unimportant. All areas of study have intrinsic value to the students. All areas of study make contributions to our way of life. The comparison is provided to serve as background to some of the questions I asked in last week's article. What education and career choices can your child make that will help them compete in this new world? What career choices will help this nation remain competitive in a world that is changing at light speed?

– Colin Armstrong is the superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County.

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