What is the role of public education in the U.S. today? This seems like a simple, straightforward question. However, I sense that a lack of consensus on the answer is one thing making progress on how to improve education so elusive. Clearly, we cannot focus the needed energy on education transformation until we have a better understanding of where we need to go. Let me try to lay out a perspective that can help.
The one belief about education that seems to have been instilled in most U.S. citizens is that education is (or should be) the ticket to the American dream. How often have I heard kids told “you need to get a good education if you want to get a good job.” This linking of education with success probably has roots back to the early days of public education in this country. However, I suspect it was significantly reinforced in the period after World War II when the U.S. was the only remaining industrial power, there were plenty of good jobs available, and one only needed basic skills and a good work ethic to qualify for those jobs. Public education of the day provided those basic skills, and we developed a very robust middle class.
In contrast, today there are plenty of young people who expended the effort to graduate from high school and even college but cannot find a good job. What happened? In today’s hypercompetitive global economy, the skills and understanding and thus the education necessary to achieve the success of the American dream are substantially more advanced than our earlier heyday.
The position of the U.S. in the 21st Century global economy is very different from that prosperous time after World War II when we were the undisputed leader. Other countries are rising in capability to the point where they can compete directly with the U.S. on many fronts. There is always someone somewhere else in the world with equivalent skills willing to work at least as hard as the U.S. worker for much lower wages. The relatively routine jobs of the former U.S. middle class that required only basic skills are either being automated or sent to lower cost regions. Successful U.S. companies in this economy are those that constantly improve and advance to stay one step ahead, and they need employees who are thinkers, problem solvers, and innovators.
Note that education is more important than ever in this global economy, but a very different kind of education. Without the right education system, not only will the under-educated be left further behind, but our country will gradually fall to second class status because we don’t have enough people with the right skills and understanding to help businesses lead.
I believe that the linking of public education with success is part of the fabric of the American economy and way of life. If we want to remain a leading country that supports a good quality of life and opportunity for our citizens, we must prepare our graduates with the skills and understanding needed for success and fulfillment in the world they are entering. Success in this statement means that graduates can find rewarding employment and life opportunities, and that employers have access to the skilled workforce they need to compete in today’s economy. Thus, the role of education today is to prepare all graduates for success and fulfillment in the 21st Century global economy.
Having said that, it is important to better define what is really involved.
Starting with the required skills and understanding, we have already said that today’s graduates need to be problem solvers and innovators. We need the best scientists and managers, for example, to keep our products and services on the leading edge. Beyond that, even factory and trades workers require much higher skills. New tools and techniques are replacing much of the manual labor, so trades workers will be asked more and more to leverage advanced tools as well as to adapt and improve. Further, in today’s information rich environment, knowing specific content or answers in defined situations, the core of traditional education, provides little advantage. It is the ability to learn new things as needed in new situations and to apply knowledge to solve new problems that is valued today. It is not what you know but what you can do and what you are becoming. That certainly requires strong academic competency, but it also requires leadership skills including initiative, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, and innovation. This type and level of skill and understanding is dramatically different from what was required in earlier times, and it suggests that education will need to change in fundamental ways to address these needs.
Just as changes in the global economy have dramatically changed the academic understanding and skills requirements for education today, related changes in our society have created additional new challenges for education. We are experiencing multigenerational poverty in this country of a nature never before encountered. Kids from poverty households deal with a myriad of issues from hunger to difficult home situations, but the greatest challenge is their lack of hope. We cannot expect such students to do well unless and until public education is able to transform their mindsets for growth and success. They need to develop confidence in themselves and belief that they can improve their situation if they actively work at it. This mindset is the most important enabler of the American dream because it determines how people will approach all other barriers. In earlier days this kind of “education” happened outside the school in families, community activities, and on the job, but we cannot count on that happening today. If education is to prepare all graduates for success, it must address this reality.
A final serious issue that has emerged in today’s society is the mismatch between how graduates are prepared and current employment openings. With the loss of the single job career and the changing nature and complexity of job opportunities, we need to help every student understand his or her strengths and passions and help orient each toward future education and career directions that are best suited to the specific student. Pushing all kids into college, even when they have little idea what they want from college, leaves us with too many kids dropping out or changing direction multiple times, often while incurring substantial debt. The inefficiency in helping students to find and pursue their best opportunity is a big drag on our economy.
So, in summary, the role of public education today is to fully prepare all students for success and fulfillment in the 21st Century global economy. In particular, public education must
1. Enable and support equal opportunity for all citizens in our democracy by nurturing the success mindset of a confident leader in every student from any socio-economic situation,
2. Develop the much more advanced understanding of the world along with innovative problem solving skills that are critical for good jobs in the 21st Century global economy, and
3. Help each student identify the career direction best suited for his or her strengths and passions, and prepare for that life path.
It is time that all of us started asking our schools what they are doing to address these requirements. It is the only way education can serve its role as the great equalizer and enabler of the American dream in today’s economy. The needs represent a very substantial shift from what was necessary to be successful even a decade or so ago. For that reason, we can expect that today’s schools need to look very different than those many of us experienced when growing up.