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South's Schools Failing To Meet Demands, Report Says

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Schools in the South are failing to equip students for a new economy taking root in the region, a report says.

Booming economic and population growth has brought the Southern states new vigor and muscle, it says, but this "golden age" will be short-lived unless the region's education systems retool.

"Demographic trends and inadequate education threaten the South's march to prosperity," says the report by MDC, nonprofit research group in Chapel Hill, N.C., that studies workforce and economic-development issues. The study was to be released this week.

Traditional industries in the South based on coal, natural gas, cotton, and tobacco are fading as retail trade, business, and health services thrive.

As a result, most new jobs in the region over the next 15 years will require professional and technical skills. Schools in most communities, however, are still geared to agrarian, labor-intensive industries, David Dodson, an executive vice president of MDC, said in an interview.

Postsecondary education will soon be a required credential for employment in the South, but more than a quarter of the region's adults do not even have a high school diploma.

"There is a conceptual lag between the vision of education appropriate for the economy of the old South and the vision of education appropriate for an economy that's just emerging," Mr. Dodson said.

Education Gains

The region's economic metamorphosis is taking place at a time when Southerners are better educated than they have ever been, the report acknowledges.

In the past 45 years, the percentage of adults in the region who have graduated from high school has nearly tripled to 70 percent. Almost half of black adults in the South have high school diplomas, compared with 17 percent as recently as 1970.

Southern states also have moved faster than the rest of the country to upgrade school curricula, the report says. In 1990, 54 percent of Southern high school students completed a core curriculum of English, social studies, science, and mathematics, compared with 40 percent nationwide.

Still, student performance in the South on the National Assessment of Educational Progress still lags behind the national averages. The federally sponsored test is the nation's only ongoing assessment of what students know in a variety of subjects.

In addition, Mr. Dodson said, students from minority and low-income families are not asked to meet high standards. "State leaders and citizens in the South must realize," he said, "that it is not only self-destructive for the economy not to educate all our children, it is a moral imperative" to educate them.

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