Cherry-picked Data Can’t Hide the Truth about Missouri’s Workforce
A version of the following commentary appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
A couple of weeks ago CNBC released its annual list of the Top States for Business 2023. Missouri was an unimpressive 32nd out of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Wondering what pulled us down? Well, this year CNBC decided that workforce quality would get the most weight of the 10 components of the index. And in that category, Missouri ranked 49th. We must not stack up too well against other states when it comes to the percentage of workers with college degrees or even industry credentials. Apparently, we also don’t compete well on the outmigration of educated workers, or on worker training programs, or on worker productivity.
So, imagine my surprise when the governor had a press conference just days later to announce a long list of Missouri’s “top” rankings. On some list we rank first in on-the-job-training. That would be for the number of participants, not quality or outcome, but still. There’s a list out there where we’re ranked second for apprenticeships and one where we are fourth for small-business jobs. The list of rankings is described as “incredible statistics that prove why Missouri is the Show-Me state.” Incredible indeed. Sadly, the governor’s list doesn’t include any source information, so we can’t tell who is saying all these complimentary things about our state.
As someone who follows the Missouri K-12 education system pretty closely, I’m not that surprised by the CNBC ranking. Education in the state is in a downward spiral. Last year, 70 percent of our fourth-graders scored below grade level on a nationally administered test. These children are moving on to the reading-to-learn years, and they haven’t learned to read. Middle school isn’t any more promising. Less than one-quarter of our eighth-graders can do math at grade level, according to the latest (2022) national assessments, and just 28 percent have grade-level reading skills.
When students start high school without having mastered the skills they need to succeed, the effects are predictable. Last year, just 60 percent of our 2022 high school graduates met the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE’s) criteria for being college or career ready. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the 40 percent who walked across the stage and were handed a diploma even though they were unprepared for the next stage of their lives. Since we’re looking at rankings, did you know that last year Missouri ranked 43rd for the percentage of high school students who took a college-level Advanced Placement (AP) test in high school? We’re not talking about passing an AP exam; only one in five high school students even took one. Also, less than 8 percent of graduating high school students completed the Career and Technical Ed (CTE) certificate program.
What are the consequences of the poor job we’re doing of preparing our students for life after high school? According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the percentage of Missourians with bachelor’s or master’s degrees has been declining in recent years. Not by much —just from 31.9 percent for bachelor’s to 31.7—but is that the direction we want it going? There’s a similar trend line for graduate degrees, which had been increasing every year until a couple of years ago, when they began to decline.
We seem to have a workforce problem, and it appears to be getting worse. Our K-12 enrollment has been declining since before the pandemic and will continue to decline based on the size of recent kindergarten classes. And within those smaller groups of students, the percentage of kids who are at grade level is declining. Smaller percentages of smaller high school graduating classes will be ready for the next stage in their lives. We need leaders who are ready to confront those facts and do something about them. The future of the state depends on it.
These leading indicators may signal what’s next for our work force, but it’s not too late to turn things around. States all around Missouri are letting parents pick where their children attend school—public or private—and having state education money follow them. Families in these states can tailor the education of each of their children, even when those needs differ within the same family. Neighboring states are implementing aggressive early literacy programs, with Mississippi being a standout, and rethinking high schools. Innovation and true accountability are happening . . . elsewhere. Meanwhile, Missourians are being handed a cherry-picked list of statistics that we’re supposed to get excited about.