Educators get down to business with diplomas

December 07, 1997|By Sara Engram

WHAT'S in a diploma?

That's no mere academic question for business leaders in Maryland. Their companies will succeed or fail on the quality of graduates from Maryland high schools.

This week will mark yet another milestone in Maryland's long road to school reform, when the State Board of Education votes to tie high school diplomas to a series of rigorous tests.

Demonstrated competence

Several details still need to be ironed out as the process unfolds. But the board's decision to link the awarding of diplomas to demonstrated competence sets the framework for holding students and their schools accountable for meeting specified standards.

When that happens, employers will have some assurance that a high school diploma does in fact stand for something. Currently, too many employers have reason to doubt its worth.

Earlier this fall, the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education released a survey of Maryland employers. Sponsored by the Roundtable, along with the Maryland Economic Development Commission, the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development and the Maryland State Department of Education, the survey was designed to collect information about the work force that could help guide efforts to improve the quality and effectiveness of Maryland's schools, particularly its high schools.

The survey found that nearly 80 percent of firms that hire manufacturing or skilled-trades workers reported difficulty in finding qualified people to hire.

Of firms that hire graduates from high school vocational-education programs, 57 percent reported difficulty in finding qualified applicants and 44 percent reported that their need for graduates from high school vocational programs would increase over the next five years.

Some 38 percent of respondents said that a lack of skilled workers has negatively affected their ability to do business over the past year.

Of the 335 companies reporting this negative impact, 84 percent said it resulted in reduced productivity; 64 percent reported reduced ability to meet deadlines; 43 percent said it had prevented company expansion; and 9 percent said it may force their firms to close or move some operations out of state.

Meanwhile, more than 80 percent of the responding firms said they considered Maryland's public and private colleges, graduate schools and professional schools to be either good or excellent; 62 percent ranked the state's community colleges as good or excellent.

Skilled workers

The survey noted that the state's work force is one of its most important competitive assets, and that the availability of skilled workers is ''the foundation on which Maryland's success in key industries such as business services and high technology is built.''

Given those findings, it should come as no surprise that business leaders are insisting that efforts to improve the available pool of qualified applicants -- school reform is a prime example -- be placed at the top of the state government's agenda.

Unlike the days when laborers could support a family without a high school education, Maryland businesses are now competing in an information-based economy based more on brains than brawn. The academic preparation of their employees has a direct influence on profits.

Maryland's progress in school reform owes a great deal to business leaders. In fact, in many cases, the business community understands the urgency of school reform better than the educational establishment.

New requirement

Fortunately, the Maryland's State Board of Education and Superintendent Nancy Grasmick are in tune with these concerns. That's why this year's sixth graders can look forward to being the first class of high school graduates required to pass statewide tests in math, English and social studies before receiving a diploma in 2004. Eventually, the number of required exams would expand to 10 tests covering four core subjects -- math, English, social studies and science.

But if those students worry about facing pressures today's high school graduates don't have, they can also expect a big reward -- a diploma that carries respect from potential employers.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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