PERSON OF THE WEEK: This year's election has raised a great deal of talk on how to get the U.S. economy back on track. For Peter Weddle, the answer reaches beyond Washington and stretches all the way back to the classroom. Weddle, former CEO of Job Bank USA Inc. and author of ‘A Multitude of Hope: A Novel About Rediscovering the American Dream,’ believes that economic power can be restored through a comprehensive reconsideration of education. MortgageOrb spoke with Weddle on his distinctive socioeconomic views.
Q: Since 2002, the U.S. dropped from 18th in the world in math on the Program for International Student Assessment to 31st place in 2009. Do you believe this may have contributed, in any way, to the deterioration of the strength of the U.S. financial services industry during the past decade?
Weddle: I think lower math scores reflect a bias in American schools about talent. They think it's only present in ‘gifted and talented’ kids, which means, therefore, that every other child was at the end of the line when talent was handed out. Who wants to work hard at math (or the financial services industry) if schools insist that you don't have what it takes to succeed?
Contrast that situation with a new program designed to open up advanced placement program classes in high school to everyone. There's a high school in Massachusetts that has a come one/come all approach to advanced placement program statistics. Today, eight times more kids are taking the class than when it was reserved for the smart kids. When only the smart kids took it, 40% got a high enough score on the advanced placement exam to get college credit. Today, with many more student enrolled, 70% of them are scoring high enough for college credit, and 25% are receiving the highest possible score, besting their peers in China, India, Korea and Germany.
Bottom line: if we want kids to take math and help keep America's financial services industry at the top of its game, we need to help them believe that they can do the work and that they have a genuine shot at success if they do that work in the best way they can.
Q: To follow-up on the first question, how can the U.S. turn around the dismal math skills of its current students?
Weddle: The U.S. is a country of big ideas. We raised a generation of world class scientists and engineers – every one of them proficient in math – with the big idea of putting a man on the moon in the 1960s. We need a similar big idea that will reinvigorate our culture with the power and promise of an education in science and math.Â
Heaven knows, given the state of the world these days, there is no end of possibilities for such a venture. We just have to find the courage and the will to embark on it.
Q: In your new book, you say, ‘Our culture has taught us that talent is the province of exceptional people doing exceptional things. We can see the talent of Lady Gaga, but not the talent of an accounts payable clerk. And that's myopic.’ How can business owners recognize talents that normally escape attention?
Weddle: Talent is not a skill or competency. It is ‘the capacity for excellence.’ And happily, that capacity is an attribute of our species. Like our opposable thumb, it is a characteristic of being human.
Tragically, however, most Americans are clueless about just what their talent is, and even fewer bring it to work with them. The first step for an employer, therefore, is to help their employees figure it out. Is it the ability to look at complex initiatives and disaggregate them into more manageable tasks? Or, is it the capacity to communicate difficult ideas in a way they can be understood by the average person?
There are a range of instruments that can help people peer inside themselves and find their talent, but employers need first to signal that it's acceptable to do so and then provide the time and space for employees to take that journey.
What's the return on such an investment? Once a person knows how to excel, they can acquire the skills and knowledge in their field to deliver that capacity on the job. And, excellence is the sustainable energy source of the modern economy.
Q: In your opinion, what is wrong with the way that U.S. schools currently conduct tests? And what is the subsequent impact on the way that U.S. companies operate?
Weddle: American companies are no longer competing with cheaper labor; they're competing against smarter labor. This issue, then, is how to define ‘smarter.’
Certainly, we need to determine a student's proficiency with academic subjects, but that's not the stuff of competitive advantage in a global marketplace. What gives a company an edge is innovation, creativity, imagination, thinking outside the proverbial box, and schools ignore the development, let alone the testing, of such traits.
Q: If the U.S. continues at its current pace without upgrading the level of educational evidence, what impact will it have on the nation's economy?
Weddle: Clearly, we need significant education reforms that will upgrade the knowledge and skills of the American workforce. We cannot remain the world's economic leader with middle-of-the-pack workers.
Moreover, the nature of that education is changing. Today, receiving a degree is not the end of one's learning but the beginning. If students enter college in a technical field today, by the time they get to their junior year, fifty percent of what they learned in their freshman year is obsolete – and that's true in a growing number of other fields.
What we have to ‘teach’ Americans of all ages, therefore, is that the era of lifelong learning is over. We have entered a new age: the age of continuous learning. Regardless of whether you've got 15 years of experience or 15 minutes, whether you're the CEO or the mailroom clerk, a person with a PhD or the recent recipient of a Bachelor's degree, you need to be in school all of the time.
And, as the title of my book implies, I'm optimistic we can make that shift. Plenty of pundits have been opining lately that the American Dream has been replaced by the Chinese or the Indian or the Korean Dream. Those countries are all formidable competitors, but they have a fatal flaw. They are, by intent, homogenous cultures. They have only one kind of talent in their workforce.Â
We in the U.S., for all of our disagreements about immigration, have the only workforce on the planet composed of all the world's talent. If we recognize that extraordinary advantage, if we demand that talent be given its due – with a fulsome education for all – we will do just fine in the 21st century and beyond.