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Perspective | Watchdog spotlights trends shaping the future

In American election campaigns, politicians and parties clash over the past and present. But, of course, the weighty act of voting also can determine how representative government faces the future.

As voters in North Carolina prepare to choose officials with power to shape the state’s future, a new report on post-pandemic trends calls attention to “challenges and changes to nearly every sector in the United States, from health care to education to defense.” Thus, it says, “the need for innovation and foresight to solve current and future problems has grown stronger.”

The report comes from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a 100-year-old agency known as the “congressional watchdog.” The GAO provides nonpartisan, fact-based, independent analyses to Congress — and by extension to the nation.

In this report, the GAO’s Center for Strategic Foresight identifies 12 big-picture trends likely to bear on government and society over this decade. Topics include preparation for catastrophic biological incidents, global supply chains, security in the digital world, and the evolving space environment. Still, the center spotlights several issues of direct relevance to North Carolina’s future — in particular, its education agenda.

“Advancing technology has reshaped education,” says the report. And in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that drove instruction online, “technology will remain part of the educational landscape.”

And yet, the GAO issues cautions and points to uncertainties. The report notes that 15-16 million public K-12 students do not have adequate internet access or devices and that thousands have been affected by data breaches.

“Technology offers the potential to create personalized learning experiences using adaptive content and assessments, while online classes provide flexibility for students in remote locations or with work or family responsibilities,” says the report. “At the same time, education technologies have not lived up to their promise … Online classes are not well suited for all disciplines or for students who require a more structured and supportive environment with in-person interactions to thrive.”

The GAO says that the pandemic did not halt advances in technology, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Indeed, says the report, “The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and rapid advances in technology herald profound changes for the workforce. The pandemic brought widespread physical distancing and accelerated shifts to remote work, which will likely influence the way people perform their jobs going forward.”

According to the GAO, disruption due to automation — for example, in food service and transportation — may well lead to more than half of low-wage workers in declining occupations needing training and education to upgrade their skills.

“Policymakers, businesses, and educators must collaborate to ensure supports for workers and training for the jobs of the future,” says the GAO report.

Meeting the challenges to education and workforce development must come in the context of addressing persistent racial and ethnic disparities in a nation with a population growing increasingly diverse. The Census Bureau projects that people of two or more races will compose the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group over the next several decades, followed by Asians, then Hispanics. The GAO makes the important point that societal and economic effects of disparities are “intertwined and far-reaching.”

“For example,” says the report, “the legacy of past federal housing policies such as ‘red-lining’ has contributed to racial and ethnic segregation. That segregation, in turn, has contributed to racial and ethnic disparities in wealth and public education.”

At one point, the GAO report positions educators as central actors in responding to certain trends. “Building on what educators have learned about effective digital practices,” says GAO, “will be critical to creating learning options that meet the needs of a diverse student population; to offering lifelong learning opportunities for workers; and to ensuring a skilled workforce.”

Resolutely nonpartisan, the GAO is not in the business of developing any candidate’s or party’s platform, nor of predicting the future. But by looking ahead, the federal watchdog points North Carolina policymakers, candidates, and voters to facts and insights that matter in shaping its future.

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.