About the Author: Stanley litow is a professor at Duke and Columbia universities and an administrator at the State University of New York. He was previously chairman of the IBM Foundation and is a co-author of Breaking Down Barriers: How P-TECH Schools Create a High School-to-College-to-Career Path.
As 2022 begins, the return to normalcy that so many of us thought is on the horizon is still not here. The Covid continues to disrupt our very existence. And yet, the effectiveness of vaccinations, targeted government support to our education and health systems, and the passing of laws to address the challenge of infrastructure and broadband access show how to find solutions to the problems. criticisms that will affect our lives in 2022 and beyond.
Here are five concerns that also need to be addressed. They will require innovation, leadership, effective collaboration and a long-term commitment to reform.
When Covid originally shut down schools and colleges across our country, many thought distance learning was a convenient and effective solution. Once the doors opened and the students returned to class, at all levels, learning would simply return. It was not and is not. Colleges are suffering from a serious drop in enrollment. Students are more behind in school than initially thought, especially the most vulnerable. Mental health issues interfere with the ability of students to succeed in our schools and colleges. And severe teacher shortages and retention issues are interfering with a return to normalcy.
At both the school and college level, we must provide resources to enable students to access guidance and support services as well as quality mental health services. Some college and even high school student support services can be provided through paid internships, supplemented by resources provided to high-quality non-profit organizations that are co-located in school and college buildings. These services can also be supported through technology solutions made available to students online. Longer school days and years to address issues of academic achievement can also be provided through expanded partnerships with nonprofit organizations. Academic challenges will require a commitment to high quality blended learning options, at all levels, using distance learning to augment, not replace in-person education.
The drop in enrollment at the college level can be offset by a full integration of high school and college studies. Innovative reform programs like P-Tech should be expanded to provide a clear path from school to college. The dramatic problem of recruiting teachers can be solved by attracting non-traditional populations to the profession. Retention can be approached with a greater emphasis on professional development and support as well as financial support at the grassroots level. A high-level national working group must be formed to meet this challenge.
Employers across the country are unable to find enough skilled workers to fill their ranks. The demands of the workforce have put a premium on those with the right levels of education and skills. As academic achievement levels continue to decline and mental health issues persist, this problem, if not addressed, will only get worse.
Covid has intensified a skills crisis that was developing due to technological changes in the workplace. More personalized training and professional skills can be obtained through a close partnership between the private sector and schools and colleges. We shouldn’t wait until students graduate – or, worse, fail – but start while students are still in school. Employers can also partner with colleges to increase the skill levels of those already in the workplace. These non-traditional students will also help fight the decline in college enrollment. A shared financial commitment in this area, complemented by the philanthropic support of foundations, can set up a clear path from school, to college, to career.
3. Diversity, equity and inclusion
George Floyd’s horrific tragedy put the emphasis on the police. While reforms are still an urgent priority there, the broader issue of the need to embrace diversity and equity in all spheres of activity should not be overshadowed or politicized. Our education systems need to be made more diverse at all levels, including the racial makeup of our faculty. Diversity and equity in businesses, large and small, must also be a high priority. We must provide opportunities for growth and expansion for minority-owned businesses disproportionately affected by Covid.
In response to the Floyd tragedy, institutions across all sectors of the economy began to commit to diversity, equity and inclusion. Companies are committed to hiring employees of color, most in entry-level positions, in the coming years. Many institutions have set up diversity training programs. Others have pledged to integrate more minority companies into their supply chains. These are welcome steps, but the next involves performance measurement as well as accountability and transparency. These can be provided, again, through collaboration with civil society, nonprofits with access to data for performance. The public can then receive that data, and the top performing institutions in all sectors can be recognized and rewarded for their excellence, while those that lag behind can be given a roadmap for improvement. Diversity and equity must also be part of all educational experiences. Pledges are one thing, but the results are what will give us confidence in a truly fair future.
4. Corporate social responsibility
It is becoming clear that some in the business world who had access to Covid relief funds were either ineligible for them or were spending them inappropriately. Perceptions of unethical and inappropriate behavior in the corporate world have already been damaged by the failures of companies like Facebook, which allowed lies to spread on social media. The problems extend to many areas of activity. Some in the pharmaceutical industry have not allowed affordable access to drugs, for example. Many companies and their leaders have clearly distinguished themselves, but public attitudes are often more influenced by the behavior of latecomers.
A partnership between Duke University and the United States Chamber of Commerce Foundation recently launched an online certificate program to provide business leaders with the opportunity to learn the most effective ways for businesses to associate their business practices with the improvement of society. As a visiting professor of practice at Duke, I led this executive training program, where dozens of business leaders learned over a week from top practitioners how to raise the bar for performance. Most importantly, participants learned how to provide specific performance metrics embedded in their business practices. This program can be scaled up across the United States and be a model for other universities working with businesses and professional associations. A commitment to improving the company is not a “good to have” or a set of commitments, but a set of vitally important business practices that lead to better company and bottom line.
5. Civil society
Nonprofits play an important role in economic success and social stability. This sector, especially those engaged in weaving our fragile social safety net, is vital for economic recovery. When public funding is directed to those in need, it is to a large extent not-for-profit organizations under contract with the government that actually deliver the services. Covid has affected their ability to recruit and retain workers, and many have not seen an increase in funding to meet growing demand for services.
It is not uncommon for a nonprofit full-service agency to obtain more than 90% of its funding from government contracts from multiple agencies, each with separate financial and operational reporting requirements. It is also common for such contracts to refuse to cover a host of net costs incurred by these agencies, including occupancy and employee health care, to name just two. As costs and the need for service increase, contracts seldom extend to cover them. Now is the opportunity to reinvent contracting processes for nonprofit providers of the vital social safety net. A single contract with common metrics for performance and financial reporting makes sense, as does the contract’s ability to cover all program costs. Private donors should also be encouraged to participate. Covid may disappear, but the needs created by the pandemic will continue for years to come.
These five issues are not the end of the list of concerns we need to be concerned about in early 2022. We need to make our civil society more civil and do what we can to bring our nation together by valuing civic education. We need to recognize the frontline workers and scientists who have helped us meet the challenge of a pandemic by not only honoring them, but honoring their work in valuing common sense health solutions like vaccination and masking. We need to recognize vital fields of activity like the arts and culture which have also been so significantly affected by the pandemic.
But, as the new year dawns, we can effectively address the challenges of education, employment, diversity, corporate social responsibility and civil society in a concerted and effective manner. If we do, we can secure a better future for all Americans.
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