Category Archives: Education

More Like It Was

Seth picks up the “future-of-(higher)-education” ball and runs with it in this post, which goes down nicely with this post.  I really think we’re approaching a big moment in the evolution of the American education system – and it’s more of a reversion than a progression of what’s already happening.

For my parents’ generation – as I’m reminded so often – degrees weren’t necessary for success in most fields.  Employers cared about whether you could do the job, not whether you went to the right school and studied the right major; if you seemed competent, you’d get a shot.  Then, as the industrial sector shrank and specialized office work grew, making the world more complicated and employee qualifications harder to suss out, employers started looking more to academic credentials as proxies for intelligence and competence.  And as a consequence, lots of Baby Boomers who never pursued higher education collided with the glass ceiling.

But it now seems like things are reverting, or at least becoming something that more closely resembles the old meritocracy than the credentialism that has dominated the last few decades.  Employers seem to finally be picking up on the disconnect between degrees and practical skills.  And just as there was a large portion of the Baby Boomer population that collided with the glass ceiling when employers shifted focus from merit to credentialing, so too will a large number of my peers when faced with employers more interested in what you can do than the name on your college education receipt (diploma).  Change always yields creative destruction in one form or another, and this will be no different.  I’m excited to see the creativity that will inevitably come of it.

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The New Schoolhouse

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what an ideal American education system would look like.  I’m not alone on that.  People are questioning our current system’s value at all its levels, from elementary school through higher ed.  Given the sea change that’s happening in the American economy right now – globalization, recession, etc. – this makes sense; if the way the world does business is changing, it stands to reason that we’re going to have to change the way we educate our citizens if we’re going to stay competitive.

With that in mind, here are a few off-the-top-of-my-head improvements that I think would do us some good:

  • Start teaching kids informal logic in middle school.  Add in statistics in high school and emphasize that math over the more-complex-but-less-practical maths that don’t make sense for kids who won’t use it later.  The idea is to make sure that young adults can navigate the 21st-century data deluge and reason between conflicting arguments by the time they leave high school.  We want people to be able to think critically and synthesize and manipulate ideas and spot weak points and nuance.  Being able to do these things is critical to being an informed and engaged citizen in a modern society, which is what every educational system should aspire to produce.
  • Beef up old-school home economics and make it mandatory for high schoolers.  Courses should include personal finance and light micro- and macroeconomics.  There’s no reason kids should be taking advanced calculus but graduating without knowing how credit cards work or why interest rates matter.
  • Make vocational training (at the high school level and beyond) a viable and attractive alternative to standard college-preparatory curricula.  College isn’t for everybody, and there are plenty of jobs that can’t be outsourced: mechanics, chefs, nurses, plumbers, etc.  These are all good jobs that need doing.  The danger here is tracking kids into these programs based not on interest and ability, but on socioeconomic status or behavioral history.  More and better trade schools will obviously cost money – public/private partnerships with big companies that need skilled workers?  That dovetails nicely into…
  • Practical learning – internships, apprenticeships – should be an integrated part of the curriculum starting in high school: just a small part starting as juniors in high school, gradually increasing in proportion to classroom time until senior year of college or vocational school, when class time is basically nil.  A student’s first taste of the “real world” shouldn’t come after graduation.  Plus the work experience will help kids decide what majors are worth the money/time investment.
  • On that same note, high schools and colleges should look to incorporate more project-based group work into the curriculum in preference to rote learning and test-time regurgitation.  Emphasize leadership and entrepreneurial skills.  There’s not much demand in the market for memorizing trivia, but leadership, initiative, and creativity are always in short supply.  And luckily these are digitally transferable.  Which is why…
  • Universities should encourage people to pursue online degrees.  Though these were once the object of much mockery, there’s no reason online higher education can’t be viable for most majors.  Online courses allow people to get quality instruction for a fraction of the cost of going away to school, while conferencing tools allow for the interactivity that might otherwise be lacking.  Plus then schools could downgrade on physical real estate, keeping only those buildings necessary for practical application learning (labs, libraries, smaller classrooms for group work).  Win-wins all around.
  • And last but certainly not least, that popular refrain: more math and science.  But don’t gut the arts, though.  That’s not cool.

Notice that I’m cherry picking here.  That’s the blogger’s pleasure: I can pick and choose what I want to deal with and leave the heavy lifting – charter schools, interdistrict school choice, funding – to the wonks.  Let’s hope they’re not so persnickety.  And more competent.

So what about you?  What measures do you think would improve the American education system?

Hat tip to all the friends I’ve discussed this stuff with over the years, and to the education policy tank I worked at for part of a summer and quit.

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