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A Call for a Calling

By Chris Mead

Once a few years ago I received a perplexing phone call. It was from Jim Dunn, who was (and is) a beloved and respected community leader in Richmond, Virginia. At that time, Jim headed the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. Jim called to suggest to me that, at the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE) where I work, we should give some serious thought to the idea of promoting early childhood education.

I admired nobody more than Jim. But . . . early childhood education? Why shouldn’t we also champion clean water in Burma, new kinds of dental floss, and a reduction of the trash littering the space surrounding Earth? Wasn’t Jim being a little . . . off mission?

I was polite but noncommittal.

That was perhaps seven or eight years ago. Now, dozens of chambers are involved with early childhood education, and hundreds are working up the line in K-12 and beyond. Some chambers have got into the education field on their own, others through their peers or encouraged by foundations. (Disclosure—my group, ACCE, is now involved with some of these foundations.)

Of course, chambers have almost always had an interest in vocational training and in colleges. Among the more gripping episodes in chamber history are their grabs for institutions of higher learning (where sometimes the accidental burning down of a college in one community meant the opening salvo for a bidding war for the new home of the institution). And most community colleges were birthed, and/or promoted to four-year status, with the help of the local chamber or some other group of area business people. Moreover, for at least 100 years, school systems have turned to chambers of commerce for support in getting bond issues passed for school construction or other expansion and enhancement projects.

But . . . trying to tackle education reform from toddler stage to post-college? Who gave chambers of commerce this mandate?

This takes me back to Roger Berkowitz’s blog about Jonathan Rauch and Demosclerosis:

Rauch refers to a massive federal government, so big that it appears almost impossible to change  significantly. Education, even with a heavy local component of funding in most cases, also seems to be one of those things in life that we can’t affect, except perhaps for minor changes at the PTA level. High school graduation rates, elementary school test scores, America’s drop from its former No. 1 status in the world in college attainment—these are surely out of ordinary citizens’ control. Shouldn’t we just leave all this to the experts?

Only if we have given up on democracy. If something important in society is not all it should be, then surely we as citizens ought to try to do something about it. And organized action at the local level frequently can bring about change. Chambers of commerce often are involved as agents of change. For example, the first major urban school voucher program for both public and private (including sectarian) schools came about in Milwaukee with significant help over 20 years from the Metropolitan Milwaukee  Association of Commerce. While such programs have been controversial, especially with public school teachers’ unions, the existence of vouchers made another reform, charter schools, suddenly look a lot more moderate.  And such charter schools have proliferated—often, once again, with a push from local chambers of commerce.

It’s not just vouchers and charter schools though. It’s seeking better statistics on school graduation rates, engaging in program for counseling and tutoring at schools, working with institutions of higher learning on curriculum, and helping schools and college with their funding plans. A number of chambers, moreover, have helped introduce a program into schools that teaches children lessons from the late Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. (Apparently it significantly raises test scores and doesn’t cost much—two aspects sure to appeal to local chambers.)

For businesses, the work force is the future. Companies are consumers of the product called “education.” They desperately need bright young workers. They want a Creative Class that actually went to class.

For chambers of commerce, their mandate clearly includes trying to boost local prosperity. But the best way to raise per-capita income is to raise educational attainment. So it’s hardly surprising that many chambers are in the business of trying to improve and extend local education.

And this takes us back to young children. Their reading level in third grade is a pretty good predictor of their future. If young children’s education is the foundation we’re building on, then finding practical ways of improving it is in everyone’s interest. The logically  involved civic groups may include, as I never would have imagined when Jim Dunn called me, local chambers of commerce.

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  • Luke Lea

    “But the best way to raise per-capita income is to raise educational attainment. . .”

    A cliche which may not even be true. If Germany is any example the best way might be to introduce more vocational training. In other words raise the appropriateness of the education our children receive, fitting it to their aptitudes and to the future needs of our economy.

  • Kevin

    Do Chamber of Commerce education iniatives actually lead to better education?

  • Eurydice

    Yesterday’s post here about the American chestnut is an example of what the cooperation of experts and ordinary citizens can do. And, as you say, no one had to give them a mandate.

    It’s terrific that chambers of commerce are joining in to improve education in the US. And I wonder if these businesspeople might not learn something themselves about the limits of what the educational system can do for them. Because, when it comes time for businesspeople to hire from the Creative Class, they don’t seem to be all that creative. I see so many companies using automated sorting with narrowly defined criteria to try to come up with the perfect employee – one who’s exactly like the one being replaced and who’ll need no training at all. It seems it’s not enough to be a bright young worker.

  • Marty

    Most chambers of commerce focus on the trees and ignore the forest. As Peter Drucker pointed out almost 20 years ago now, serial self-employment is the hallmark of the unfolding Information Age. Yet the political activity of the business establishment does little or nothing to take on the government impediments to this transformation. WRM laid out the agenda in his remarkable Blue Social Model series, but so far he is one of the few public voices to get it right.

  • Mick The Reactionary

    @Chris Mead:

    “the best way to raise per-capita income is to raise educational attainment.”

    A perfectly testable assertion. As was pointed above, it is a well-worn and tired cliche.

    As always the case with education boosters there is no proof offered. We must assume it is an obvious fact of nature.

    Of course millions of un/under employed college graduates, both with and without experience might disagree with the assertion, but they do not count in educational propaganda.

    One could test the cliche a bit without using stats:

    1) Are people with read/write/arithmetic and/or some vocational skills are better off than people who are totally illiterate with no usable skills?
    Intuitively the answer is very likely to be yes.

    2. If all students must spend 10 years after high school in college getting PhDs, does society benefit?

    How many students are not capable of getting PhD, even a PhD from diploma mill?
    How many PhDs the economy needs and will absorb?

    Say there are 1000 jobs total in US for Astronomy PhDs, a very demanding degree in a very demanding profession, no more than 5%-10% of population have brain power to obtain such degree.

    By offering scholarships and grants we could recruit 1000 capable students per year.

    So 1000 bright and shiny new Astronomy PhDs for a job market where there are maybe 30 (100 * 3% turnover) jobs opening per year.

    How that benefits society and our bright and hardworking graduates?

    A standard answer an education fanatic will give, if they will bother to answer at all, is highly skilled and intelligent PhD astronomers could use their talents elsewhere. Which is true, an astronomy PhD could, with some significant additional training become a CPA or a nurse.
    They could get thru licensing hoops and become a elementary / middle /high school teacher. Or they could write software for a website together with assorted college graduates and college dropouts.

    But they could have done all those things after getting only 4 year degree in sciences.
    So their return on educational investment beyond 4 years is zero.

    Is that what education fanatics propose?

    Hard to say, they never feel any responsibility to answer the skeptics.

  • Joe

    I respect the Chamber, and support what they do in our community, but I’m not sure I want them driving the direction of education.

    I’m trying to educate my kids. A nice side effect will be the ability to get a job.

    Further, I’m trying to get my kids ready for what the world will look like 15-20 years from now. I make my best guess at the habits, skills, and understanding that will serve them well.

    It’s long term stuff, and not the kind of thinking business leaders are particularly good at (or educrats, for that matter).

    Business leaders describe the kind of workers they need today. Educrats scramble to produce them. Kids graduate in 15 years and everything has changed.

    This is a model for success?

  • Mick The Reactionary


    “As Peter Drucker pointed out … serial self-employment is the hallmark of the unfolding Information Age.”

    What does it mean?

    Is self-employment is a hallmark while InfoAge is unfolding, but stops being hallmark when it stops unfolding?

    Or when InfoAge stops unfolding, does self-employment stops being employment and just becomes self?

    Like, Self is a hallmark of not-unfolding InfoAge?

    And what happens when InfoAge starts folding?
    Does self-employment becomes self-unemployment or simply unemployment?

    Like, serial unemployment is a hallmark of folding InfoAge?

    Actually the last one makes sense to me.

  • Corlyss

    I’m all for any conservative institution that undertakes, with its own money and its own resources, to counter the anti-Amrican, anti-entrepreneurship, pro-Gaia, mindless Sesame-Street social quackery that passes for early education.

    Consider it an intervention long over due.

  • Eurydice

    LOL@Mick – I think you’ve seen “Inception” one too many times.

  • Marty

    @Mick — Nice hall of mirrors you’ve got there!

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