Please leave preconceptions and biases on the coat hooks at the back of the room, this post is not about bashing public (or private) school employees, and it is only tangentially about school funding. It is about expectations, some good, some garbled, and some grotesque.
For reasons that have less to do with teaching children, and far more to do with adult problems we seem to have decided that our schools can “train the workers of tomorrow,” “solve societal issues,” “provide essential community services,” and “develop leadership.” No running in the halls please, this is a bit much.
What might happen if we truly did aspire to get back to the basics? In this instance “basics” means that we decide that our elementary and secondary schools are there because children need a well rounded, fundamental, education in which they are taught fundamental facts and skills. This would be a tough exercise because it would mean saying “NO” to a wondrous variety of special interests.
NO, business interest representative, your local schools are NOT job training centers. There is little in this life so clearly audible, and yet so perfectly inane as the business community bemoaning the “fact” that our schools aren’t producing instantly employable workers. If we’d slow down for a moment it would be just as instantly comprehensible why this is true.
The capacity of our manufacturing and commercial entities to predict job skills necessary in even the near future is abysmally low. Years ago, in what are now impolitely called Rust Belt Cities, business interests clamored for manufacturing skill training, and Lo, the public schools responded by establishing incredibly expensive manufacturing oriented vocational training programs — and we know what happened. Manufacturing declined, the skills required to work in a tool and die factory gave way to skills and training required to work in Information Technology, and the school districts were stuck holding the bills.
This isn’t simply an extreme example from yesteryear. Cornell University researchers decided to test the employment projection estimates made between 1978 and 1990. How far off were the estimates? During the period estimates for executive and administrative jobs conjectured that there would be a 20.3% growth rate — the actual rate 56.7%. Professional services were projected to see a growth rate of 25.3%, the actual rate was 42.3%. Sales occupations growth was projected at 26.3%, it came in as 36.7%. Employment for machine operators was estimated to increase by 14.1%, employment in that domain actually dropped by 10%. Employment for laborers was estimated to increase by 16.9%, it declined by 3.9%. (1)
What’s the reason for using data from 1978 to 1990? Quick, inside the head, arithmetic shows that the study included a 12 year span — exactly as long as a child might be in school before heading out into that labor market.
One projection we might take seriously is that the average American worker will be employed in 10 different jobs over a lifetime and that more generalized skills are essential. After genuflecting to the bogey man of foreign competition, one bit of advice circled back to a defensible conclusion: “Significant disparities exist between the skills that workers offer and those that employers require, raising the risk that U.S. companies will lose business to foreign competitors with better-educated workforces. To remain employable, workers need to develop higher-order thinking skills, embrace emerging technology and become lifelong learners.” [AOL] (emphasis added)
So, are we promoting higher-order thinking skills, providing the technological bits, and encouraging life long learning? Another “How To” article for human resource personnel advises that “you can teach skills and knowledge, but you cannot teach character.” [BusKnowHow] So, are we working on ‘character,’ or emphasizing specific skills and knowledge? The authors of this advice contend that employers will be best pleased by hiring those who demonstrate truthfulness, work ethic, teachability, commitment, forgiveness, timeliness, and acceptance of responsibility. (2) All great unmeasurables.
No, enthusiastic ideological advocates, the schools are not indoctrination centers. Putting it bluntly albeit tactlessly, the indoctrination of students into the theological realms of creationism in any of its various forms will probably not serve a student well who wants to seek a career in life sciences and medicine. Nor will repetitively inserting instruction in generalized humanities serve to create a student thinking of career as a sound engineer. Our curricula should be founded on the transmission of fundamental information and skills, the inculcation of higher order thinking skills, and the notion that schooling is rather different than education. Schooling lasts 12 years, education is that “life long” thing.
No, social benefits promoter, the schools can’t be the salvation of the neighborhood. There are some functions schools can perform well, such as after school extracurricular activities and tutoring programs. However, the schools are not a substitute for adequate child care institutions and facilities. Schools can, and do, maintain health records and school health personnel can keep parents and guardians advised of health and physical issues; but, the schools are no substitute for adequate public health access and treatment.
School personnel are all too often the first to notice problems which may stem from issues in the home. However, schools are no substitute for adequately staffed and funded employment centers, social work institutions, and mental health services. Schools can enforce disciplinary policies regarding bullying, hazing, and harassment, but they are no singular substitute for a well formulated and integrated community response to bullies and harassers.
Schools can promote healthy school lunches and encourage sound nutritional practices, but they are no substitute for the community wide development of grocery store access in local neighborhoods; nor are they a substitute for parental guidance for children who witness innumerable ads for junk food on television.
But what of all those things business leaders, ideological advocates, and social benefit promoters want to see the schools do? We’ll be on the correct path the day we decide that we want schools to educate. Right — “educate,” not train, not babysit, not be a major health care provider, not be the center for social services — educate.
We’ll probably be able to deliver a sensible curriculum when we devise one. Instead of focusing on the fleeting perceived needs of business projections, we’ll be better off when we teach young people how to apply mathematical skills and concepts, how to write with some precision and accuracy, how to speak articulately and effectively, and how to read and analyze the content of the piece.
Instead of focusing on the clamor for ideologically based content, we’ll be better off when we teach youngsters how to recognize propaganda, how to analyze an argument, how to test the veracity of evidence, and how to evaluate ideas. (3) This may not please the ideologues, especially those who cling to the notion that a good child is a submissive one, but it will provide employers with employees who can think through the next problem, not wait around for someone else to figure it out.
Instead of all but demanding that the schools be day care providers, health care providers, social assistance and job training centers, how about we put our emphasis on what schools were designed to do in the first instance: Teach. Yes, we can provide a healthy mix of extracurricular activities and programs — but we ought not expect schools to model parenting. Yes, we can and should provide basic health care — but we ought not expect the school nurse to be the only one tracking the health of any young person and providing treatment. Yes, we can expect the school to provide a safe environment, but that doesn’t mean the school should be the only place for a child to feel secure.
And now that we’ve decided that we want our schools to teach young people how to analyze, generalize, prioritize, compare, contrast, evaluate, appraise, correlate, integrate, and summarize (among a myriad of other such tasks), we need to settle on curriculum standards which promote those skills. Let’s assume this isn’t likely to happen if our assessment tools measure how well students perform on information based low level paper and pencil testing.
Let’s also assume that we aren’t going to get to that exalted level unless or until we understand that we have a vast amount of knowledge about the human brain, and precious little understanding of how it works. In other words, the day we accept that there is no single model explaining how people learn will be the day we can stop focusing on Silver Bullets and formulaic teaching and start devising educational programs that work.
(1) Bishop, Carter, “How Accurate Are BLS Occupational Projections,” Cornell University, October 1, 1991. (pdf) Undaunted by the problems with past attempts at occupational projections, Georgetown University produced a study sponsored by the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation for Education, entitled “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018,” (Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl), June 2010. (pdf) Obviously, the jury is still out on its accuracy.
(2) Anderson, “When Character Counts,” Business Know How, Management and Human Resources.” See also: Lagorio, “How to improve your hiring practices,” Inc. April 1, 2010. Arvidson-Dailey, “10 Hiring Tips for Small Business,” Business Know How, Management and Human Resources.
(3) It isn’t necessary to be tied to Bloom’s Taxonomy, but that’s as good a place to start as any. Johnson and Lamb, “Critical and Creative Thinking,” Educscapes. Bellis, “Critical Thinking-Creative Thinking,” via USTPO, About.com. King, Goodson, Rohani, “Higher Order Thinking Skills: Definition, Teaching Strategies, Assessment,” FSU (pdf)