Forty is the new 30. Orange is the new black. Coffee is the new wine.
It seems that snowclones like these are everywhere nowadays. They pop up as unavoidable YouTube and Facebook memes. Indeed, in our Internet-driven lives, memes are the new clichés. One is tempted to come up with a “what is the new what” phrase for education reform. Okay, let’s be honest, you are probably not tempted to do so; but I am. So, here goes.
When our nation was entering the Industrial Age from its agrarian past, education needed to change pretty dramatically. Instead of just a few elites getting Reading , ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic, a growing workforce—a majority of Americans—now needed the literacy and numeracy required by an emerging, rapidly-changing industrial job market. Further, the assembly model of industry shaped the classroom itself: sit in rows, copy from a known body of knowledge, test for accuracy and repetition.
This method did a good job for a long time (especially if you could live with glossing over the fact that “a majority of Americans” meant male and white). Our economy boomed. The middle class thrived. The US ascended to economic leadership. And along with that momentum came a cliché all its own: teach kids the “hard” skills.
This back-to-basics mentality stresses the common sense notion that you only really learn by learning about something. You gotta memorize your multiplication tables. You can either spell or you can’t. You need to know a Shakespeare reference when you see one. These things matter to getting a job, getting ahead, and getting along. I agree, as far as it goes.
The problem is that it’s been clear for some time now that we’re moving from our industrial past to a new Information Age—and that education needs to change pretty dramatically all over again. Instead of just a few elites getting the skills to think critically and collaborate with others to innovate, a growing workforce—a new, multi-ethnic majority of Americans—now needs the “deeper learning” required by a rapidly-changing global job market. Researchers tell us that such learning comprises a mix of content knowledge, learning skills, and academic mindsets. Further, the knowledge-based model of the information economy should reshape classrooms: work in groups, leverage past knowledge to solve new problems, test for deep understanding and analysis.
This has also been made into a cliché: referred to somewhat condescendingly as the “soft skills.” But, increasingly these skills define who gets, and keeps, a job. Routine work—car assembly— is now done by robots. Even complex jobs based on knowable rules—tax preparation—are now automated and done by computers. On top of it all, the global economy can find talent anywhere—and does through outsourcing. These forces privilege an elite education that values full inclusion of soft skills. Yet, most kids today are being driven to memorize just the “hard” basics and spit them back out on multiple choice tests. This isn’t preparing them to get a college degree, to get a good job, and to enter the middle class as far too many recent news reports have been telling us. As one of the Foundation’s grantees, the Alliance for Excellent Education, points out in a persuasive report, in the new economy, both individuals and the nation as a whole are suffering when we don’t provide a quality education for all students.
So how do Americans get back on top? By acknowledging that—while, in fact, you do need the Three Rs—you now also need a robust set of skills that let you apply your knowledge to solve problems, to persist in the face of challenges, to reinvent your own job, and to learn how to learn across a lifetime. Add to this America’s get-up-and-go and you’ve got a winning formula for meeting the fast-paced challenges of the global economy and revitalizing citizenship here at home.
Turns out you need skills, man. Sometimes a cliché is a cliché for a reason.
I recently read a piece on the state of US high schools in the education leadership magazine Phi Delta Kappan by Maria Ferguson, who is a grantee of the Foundation’s Education Program. Maria leads the Center on Education Policy—an independent research and watchdog outfit housed at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Her commentary, "High Schools: Grow Up," makes the case that American high schools are stuck in their own version of a sophomore slump. Yes, they are graduating ever more seniors, but they are not fully addressing the challenges posed by a global economy and the demands of the Information Age.
Reading the article was a case of serendipity for me. I had just seen the digitally-restored teen classic, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” on the silver screen again the week before. Watching it in full nostalgia mode connected me to Maria’s animating observation: that while today's students—and schools—are much the same, their world has changed an awful lot.
The PDK commentary is what Fast Times' Jeff Spicoli would have deemed "excellent." Maria’s message about the importance of high school reform is quite timely, especially as the spotlight of national discussion turns more toward what US policy can do to improve the bookends of K-12 schooling—early childhood readiness beforehand and college access and success afterward.
As I read Maria's commentary, though, I wondered: if the American high school itself can be seen as a struggling youngster, who can help it grow up? High schools, like the wayward, pizza-ordering Spicoli, need a mentor, their Mr. Hand. I would argue that the very institutions that are most sharpening and clarifying the need for high school reform can do a better job of signaling to and supporting it: higher education and business.
The postsecondary sector could be a "mentor" to high schools to help them achieve needed reforms by better signaling the “deeper learning” competencies that kids need today—critical thinking, teamwork, academic persistence, and the like. Even as high school graduation rates climb nationally, we see college remedial education rates growing in tandem since many of these newly minted grads are not really prepared for the more rigorous intellectual demands of higher education. It would help, for example, if universities would agree on a "cut score"—a minimum score on the Partnership for Assessing Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced assessments of the Common Core Standards—that qualifies students for placement into credit-bearing college coursework. Universities, too, could more aggressively pursue partnerships with high schools, such as early college high schools and their ilk.
The business sector could also be a good mentor to our well-meaning but struggling high schools. Employer surveys and labor economic research have long revealed that seniors—whether bound for more schooling or for the workplace—need higher-order thinking skills and advanced competencies in order to even get hired, much less succeed in a career. The number of open—but unfilled—jobs in the US today amounts to a standing recession atop the Great Recession. Business can help high schools design relevant, real world work, partnering with schools on internships—just as the Linked Learning movement promotes—and lending their gravitas to champion high school reforms such as upgrading educational goals and improving student testing.
This, then, is hidden, wonkish education policy reform message you never dreamed to find in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”: even as they change, the times are getting much faster. Thank goodness the feathered hair of the ’80s is gone, but in the face of intense technological revolutions, automation, and the global economy, so too is the guarantee of an easy job. Our high schoolers no longer get to enjoy that iconic, lazy summer after graduation—they need to be ready to compete. Likewise, our teachers no longer get to aim just for getting Mr. Spicoli a high school diploma—they need to be getting him ready to achieve a post-secondary credential, whether via industry or university.
As Maria notes, everyone needs to grow up a bit. Employers and college leaders can help.