By: James R. Williams—
Horace Mann founded the common school movement that formed the basis for universal American public education. When Mann’s work started in the 1840s, the Industrial Revolution was underway. Americans were educating students to work in an agrarian, mercantile, and light industrial economy.
“Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men [and women], and the balance wheel of social machinery.”—Horace Mann
Public schools adapted as we progressed through the next 150 years educating students to obtain a post-secondary education or to take their place in a more heavily industrialized economy. This was particularly true in the Midwest where manufacturing jobs abounded, paid living wages, and provided secure employment opportunities for decades.
Henry Adams, in all of his genius, recognized the moral imperative of education existing to provide equal opportunity for our citizens.
“From cradle to grave this problem of running order through chaos, direction through space, discipline through freedom, unity through multiplicity, has always been, and must always be, the task of education, as it is the moral of religion, philosophy, science, art, politics, and economy.”—Henry Adams
We now find ourselves in a new economic reality: one driven by technology, rapid change, immediate access to information, and globalization. The effects of this transformation have been profound for communities like Muncie. Those citizens who previously secured meaningful work in a 1960s economy have too often been left to flounder through no fault of their own. Our collective answer for the past 30 years or so has been that you need a four-year college degree to be successful. The federal government has spent and loaned billions of dollars in pursuit of this outcome.
This goal, while positive for so many people, does not fit everyone’s skills, talents, or interests nor does it fully meet the marketplace’s demands. Consequently in 2019, potential employees often lack the necessary skills to succeed in our economic environment. Furthermore, we have failed to appreciate the continuing demand for skilled trades like electricians, plumbers, and carpenters. Quite simply, we are not preparing enough of our students to enter the modern economy equipped to make a decent living. The negative effects of this failure are profound for our region: high rates of poverty and underemployment, daily casualties in the opioid crisis, and negative indicators on most measures of physical and mental health.
The good news is that Delaware County is resource rich, and is well situated to improve our outcomes. Ball State University, IU/BMH, Purdue Polytech, Ivy Tech, Vincennes University, Muncie Community Schools, all of our county school systems, and numerous high-quality pre-K programs provide us with a solid foundation. We have vibrant, well-run foundations that are able to provide funding to support our path forward. We have a philanthropic spirit that results in Delaware County being in the upper rank of giving per capita in Indiana. We have a dedicated non-profit sector doing critical work addressing social and educational needs. Finally, we have committed employers in our private sector who desperately need capable employees now and in the future.
In light of these resources, what is the path forward? Answer: Collaboration, Coordination, Analysis and Delivery of educational and social services. Mobilizing these community resources into a coordinated body to address the educational and social needs is our challenge and our opportunity. Hundreds of communities like Muncie have already taken up this challenge and are treating it as a call to action.
They are bringing together community members who play a role in our children’s lives: parents, teachers, principals, employers, non-profits like United Way and By5, local governmental agencies, and other stakeholders. While our school systems should provide the backbone for this effort, they cannot do it alone. In order to be successful, the entire community must be held accountable to efficiently and effectively educate our students.
Once all of these stakeholders are mobilized, they must be guided by community-wide demographic data about our children, their families, and how best to ensure educational success. In order to be helpful, this data has to measure social and educational variables and outcomes from cradle to career. This data must then be used to determine where children are at risk with a focus on these critical questions: How and by whom can problems be addressed most effectively? How can we collaboratively improve outcomes for the students? How can we eliminate overlap or fill gaps in available services?
What jobs are available in our region now; and what jobs will be available in the future? How can we best train and prepare our students and adult citizens to succeed in those jobs? How do we hold each other accountable for coordinated, efficient, and collaborative delivery of effective educational and social services from the cradle to the career?
Several individuals in the community are already working to lay this groundwork. However, to be successful, this approach will require a long-term commitment to full collaboration, an appreciation of data-driven and evidence-based decision making, and a longitudinal attention to educational outcomes from pre-K through post-secondary training and education. Indiana estimates that our future economic demand will require 60% of citizens to possess some post-secondary training: bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees, or professional certifications or vocational training.
Approximately 30% of Delaware County’s citizens currently meet these criteria. Therefore, the goal must be to prepare all of our students to take their place in a modern economy. We can spend millions of dollars on economic development efforts to attract employers to our region; however, if we are unable to meet current and prospective employers’ demand for capable employees, those recruitment investments will yield minimal returns. For the foreseeable future, mobilizing our community to focus on education must be a centerpiece of Delaware County’s economic development strategy. This is the economic reality for our community; more critically, the social reality is that if we fail to make cradle to career a community priority, we will continue to consign too many of our students to lives of adult poverty.
About the author
James R. Williams is a partner at Defur Voran law firm in Muncie, Indiana and President of the Muncie Community Schools Board of Directors.
He returned to the private practice of law on January 1, 2005, after serving as Judge of the Union Circuit Court in Liberty, Indiana, and as a special presiding Judge of the Wayne Circuit and Superior Courts in Richmond, Indiana. During his judicial career, Judge Williams presided over courts with both civil and criminal jurisdiction. Judge Williams developed a reputation in east central Indiana as a Special Judge of Choice. He presided over approximately 700 Special Judge cases between 1999 and 2004.
The opinions herein are those of the author.