Governor opens education summit at Cape

Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Missouri governor Matt Blunt, seen here Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2008, in Jefferson City, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

The buzzword is alignment. It means making sure the education offered to students in high schools, technical centers and colleges provides the skills employers need in new recruits.

On Tuesday, Gov. Matt Blunt held the first of a series of business and education summits in Cape Girardeau, bringing together representatives of major industries with leaders from school districts, community colleges and Southeast Missouri State University.

As part of the summit's after-lunch roundtable discussion, Blunt said he has tried to boost education funding, make math, engineering and science courses a focus of high school coursework and promote studies that examine the gap between training and employer needs.

"At a time when the world is changing, we owe it to our children, our students, our young adults that we are preparing them adequately," Blunt said.

The themes are not new. For many years, leaders of both parties and from the education and business establishments have raised warnings that the U.S. is falling behind its global competitors in many education measures.

Past administrations have also introduced initiatives to build up education in math and science. Blunt, who is not seeking re-election, said he hopes the new effort will endure and not become a victim of politics. The METS, or math, engineering, technology and science, program is being developed to make sure every high school student graduates with a basic understanding of those subjects.

"The strength of the METS coalition is that it is not driven by the governor's office," Blunt said in an interview after the roundtable.

"A future governor would be foolish" to scrap the program in favor of another program with similar designs, Blunt said.

Blunt said school districts have added hundreds of Advanced Placement course teachers and technologically advanced classrooms, funded after-school programs and scored gains at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels on national tests.

"We shouldn't in any way read those results and be complacent," Blunt said.

During the discussion, part of a daylong event at the Show Me Center, participants were given copies of the executive summary and Southeast Missouri sections of the state's Workforce 2025 report, prepared by the Missouri P-20 Council. The report details efforts to improve math and science education and prepare students for the work force. It also looks at where the state and region are falling short of goals.

For example, 35.6 percent of the students enrolled in public post-secondary institutions in the 23-county Southeast Missouri region were enrolled in remedial math classes in 2006, the second-highest percentage among seven regions.

To battle the problem, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will revise the curriculum and testing methods for high school students. By 2010, students will be required to pass tests in algebra, communications and biology as part of their high school work, said Stan Johnson of the education department.

But there are good signs as well in the report. The number of people receiving post-secondary, vocational and master's degree level training seems to be adequate to fill the projected job openings in the region, with the number of people earning associate's or bachelor's degrees exceeding demand.

Many employers are taking the duty of preparing young people for high-tech jobs on themselves.

Employers from the region said their industries, which once relied heavily on employees' muscle power, are now relying more and more on their brain power. Keith Epselienk, vice president of operations at Mississippi Lime Co. in Ste. Genevieve County, said he takes high school students on tours of his quarry to show them how technology has changed his business.

Steve McPheeters of Noranda Aluminum said the average age of his maintenance technicians is 51 years old. His company is helping students by supporting their training to replace those aging workers. But individual company efforts are only going to do so much, he said, and the rest requires a coordinated effort.

"To do that, we are going to have to invest in education and training," McPheeters said.

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