“I invite you – I implore you –

to change the world …

by investing in our students.”

– Emmanuel Caulk,

Portland’s superintendent of schools

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about curriculum alignment. Schools at all levels are increasingly under the gun to design educational programs that will provide students with “marketable skills,” that will enable them to become that holy grail of the labor market –the qualified candidate. We hear virtually daily about the need for STEM education, about the skills gap. Just this week, I’ve been analyzing a survey of businesses from another state in which 17 percent of the respondents say that they can’t fill 25 percent or more of their current job openings for lack of qualified candidates. I know of other instances here in Maine where over 100 jobs are currently advertised but unfilled.

It’s easy to say that our children are our future. It’s much harder to get them there. Every day that a job in Maine goes unfilled is a lost investment opportunity, a lost chance to build human capital that will have a lifetime of returns, returns that will enrich both the person who can fill the job and the community where she/he lives.

That’s why the message that Manny Calk delivered to the Portland Regional Chamber’s Eggs & Issues breakfast last week is so important. The central human capital problem facing both Maine and the nation as a whole is that both parties in the investment process – educators and employers – are struggling to understand what the other needs indirectly, by conducting research studies rather than just crossing their boundaries to see what’s happening on the other side.

This problem of curriculum alignment reminds me of Francis Bacon’s story of the dispute that took place in a Franciscan friary in 1432 regarding the number of teeth in a horse. “All the ancient books and chronicles were fetched out,” Bacon observed, “and wonderful and ponderous erudition, such as was never before heard of in this region, was made manifest.” For 14 days the scholastics disputed until a “youthful friar of goodly bearing … beseeched them to … to look in the open mouth of a horse and find answer to their questionings.”

In his own way, Portland’s superintendent is reprising the role of the friar of good bearing. “Enough of this whining and disputing about skills gaps and adequate preparation,” he pleads. “Let’s just open the horse’s mouth and see how many teeth are in there!”

And to do that, of course, requires changing deep-seated habits. Business managers and teachers are very busy people. Their days are fully scheduled; things need to get done; there is no time for “extras.” Which is exactly why fundamental structures must be changed. If we are to make education truly serve “the public” – students and the community – the public must be involved. Internships, adopt-a-school programs, volunteer efforts, after-school programs and clubs – all these efforts must become an integral parts of the existing budgets for companies and the schools.

As Bacon said of his youthful friar – he “sorely vexed … the wisdom … of his learned superiors” – but only in such a way can we address the real problem.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

clawton@planningdecisions.com