Preparing Students for a Global Workforce

In the past few weeks, I've read several articles and blog posts about schools training children for the new labor market.

Harry B at Crooked Timber mentioned a book by Tony Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need–and What We Can Do About It. Wagner's thesis is that the most innovative schools in the world provide kids with skills that will enable them to compete in a global workplace. American schools are falling behind because they put too much emphasis on testing and don't teach higher-level problem solving. He interviewed business leaders to find out what deficits exist in their workers.

The New York Times reports that schools are introducing engineering into the curriculum in many schools.

Inside Higher Ed reports that "The United States economy is in serious danger from a growing mismatch
between the skills that will be needed for jobs being created and the
educational backgrounds (or lack thereof) of would-be workers. That is
the conclusion of a mammoth analysis of jobs data being released today
by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce."

With bleak employment numbers and the transformation of the economy, it's hardly surprising that there is growing pressure to revamp our schools.

The involvement of business leaders in schools is also nothing new. Since the evolution of our public education system, they have played a cyclical role in shaping our school's curriculum.

I have mixed feelings about this trend to prepare kids for the global workforce.

On the positive side, I do believe there are real changes happening in the workforce, and our kids do need to be prepared for new demands. I believe that education policy should be a community endeavor and should not be entirely shaped by administrators and education elite.

On the negative side, I have many concerns about how a "career-focused" curriculum is implemented.

Administrators in our town have been influenced by the Wagner book. As a result, group class projects have replaced individual projects. These class projects emphasize visual presentation over written expression. The children are rewarded for the number of pictures on the bulletin board. They only write four essays for the entire year. They are taught how to use PowerPoint in their English classes, rather than how to write a clear topic sentence. It's not surprising that school test scores plummeted.

My kid turned eleven last week. He'll enter the workforce in ten years, after he finishes college. If anyone claims that they know the workforce will look like in ten years years, he/she is a huckster and should be mocked. No one can predicted what professions will be valued in ten years time. I can predict with utter confidence predict that PowerPoint will not exist in ten years; five or six new generations of software will pop up in that time. I can also say with complete confidence that we'll need workers that can read complicated material and express themselves both verbally and in written form.

At the same time, budget cuts have devastated our foreign language program. Jonah will spend more time in a home economic class next year, then in Spanish class. I would think that knowledge of a foreign language would be a prime need in a global workforce.

I remain suspicious of all curriculum reform. Talented teachers and motivated students with committed parents will succeed, regardless if the emphasis is on engineering or on Shakespeare.

25 thoughts on “Preparing Students for a Global Workforce

  1. My guess is that school administrators latch on to this ‘creating a global workforce’ stuff because it is much less depressing to think about teaching problem solving than it is to think about how many kids at the bottom don’t even learn enough to read the problem set.

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  2. “No one can predicted what professions will be valued in ten years time.”
    Right. I have a bad feeling about the current health care gold rush, with everybody seemingly retraining to go into medicine. Obviously, we do need a lot of health care workers, but likewise, we also needed a lot of programmers during the tech bubble, and real estate agents, construction workers and mortgage brokers. I suspect there’s going to be a collapse in medical salaries at all levels, so anybody going into it for the money is going to be disappointed.
    There are a lot of stereotypes about young workers, and not being globally competitive or higher level problem solvers doesn’t really come up (although I’m sure that’s true, too). It may be totally unfair, but these younger workers are widely viewed as being lazy, entitled and seeing themselves as too good for their jobs.

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  3. Miss T. is heading off to kindergarten in the fall. At the parent orientation, the principal wasted 5 minutes of our time by showing some scare video off Youtube — “Shift Happens”, maybe? Useless statistics, all 5 years out of date…
    … I’m actually not unhappy with most of the changes the local system has made lately, but it made me lose some respect for the principal that for him, these kinds of “global” issues were the motivator, rather than say local equity concerns.
    On the other hand, maybe it’s easier if the administrators can blame the changes on big scary global trends, rather than on the local problems we all already know about, and disagree about how, or whether, to fix?

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  4. Anyway, doing higher-level problem solving is most of my day. I still haven’t figure out how to make any real money out of it.

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  5. I can predict with utter confidence predict that PowerPoint will not exist in ten years; five or six new generations of software will pop up in that time.
    That’s why I praise my old high school for being so forward looking.
    Unsure which word processing package would eventually prevail in the marketplace, we were forced to memorize how to copy and paste in both Word Perfect AND WordStar.
    I’m pretty sure it was “F3” for one of them.

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  6. Well, I wouldn’t bet that Powerpoint ceases to exist in ten years, but I would bet that the paradigms will have changed in presentations (and a new bunch of consultants will make their money advocating the newest techno-panaceas).
    It’s maddening that languages languish at the same time administrators mouth platitudes about teaching for the global future. And to see writing neglected even more? Bah. I can already see how this will play out in my first year classroom over the coming years!

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  7. …we were forced to memorize how to copy and paste in both Word Perfect AND WordStar.
    We learned typing on IBM Selectrics. We had computers (Apple IIs), but they were rare enough that you didn’t get to use them until you learned to type the old way.

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  8. I don’t think Wagner downplays communication skills. It’s one of his top skills mentioned here.
    I am not an educational traditionalist by any means. I’m very much a pragmatist. Wagner’s essay influenced me quite a bit, plus I am teaching at a career-focused university where the language of pragmatism is important when trying to influence our students and get them to buy in to what we’re teaching.

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  9. I’ve also been wondering if we should focus K-5 education on knowledge and skills accumulation and then make middle school the place where project-based learning and application of skills happens.

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  10. I’ve picked a lovely time to wade into k-12 education, albeit in a private school. Here’s what I believe as a lifelong educator. Problem solving, critical thinking and communication skills (written and verbal) will get you into a lot of jobs and will help you succeed in a lot of jobs. All of those skills need to be taught in a variety of disciplines and interdisciplinarily. Critical thinking in literature is different from critical thinking in math, but you need both.
    It is also true that to get to those skills, you need a foundation of information and knowledge. You need to know how to read, write, spell, do basic math, etc. before you get to more complex stuff, though learning those things certainly doesn’t preclude that you learn some higher level skills along the way.
    During the economic crisis, a lot of people decried the fact that many wall street brokers had such narrow training, blaming their single-mindedness on their lack of breadth in education. Where is that argument now? Now, we’re talking about training people for specific careers *before* teaching them those broad skills. Sigh. It’s going to be an interesting time, to be sure.

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  11. Wendy, you may be more of a traditionalist that you think. What you’re describing is very close to the first part of a classical education, one favored by many homeschoolers who find public schools more interested in teaching “21st century skills”.
    Classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind. The early years of school are spent in absorbing facts, systematically laying the foundations for advanced study. In the middle grades, students learn to think through arguments. In the high school years, they learn to express themselves. This classical pattern is called the trivium.
    What is Classical Education?

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  12. My earlier comment didn’t make it through, probably error on my end. It was very long, so I’ll shorten up.
    Wagner is basically a defense of what I think of as a classic liberal arts education. He thinks the key skills we need moving forward are: the ability to communicate clearly in written, oral, and visual media; the ability to organize, prioritize, and analyze vast amounts of information; and, the ability to think creatively and problem solve. He thinks assignments should reflect authentic knowledge (that is they should have the student apply a skill as well as check content knowledge). Writing a critical essay is right up his alley. If the essay uses visual and textual evidence, so much the better. If the essay formed the basis of a short documentary film, even better.
    As far as group work goes; he is careful to point out that it needs to be through carefully designed roles with assessments to match each role. Roles should rotate throughout the year so that each person gets to do each role once. This is hard work for teachers who have never graded this way before and requires lots of careful planning.
    He doesn’t say squat about powerpoint. Somebody either missed the point of his work or is intentionally misreading it.

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  13. “During the economic crisis, a lot of people decried the fact that many wall street brokers had such narrow training, blaming their single-mindedness on their lack of breadth in education.”
    That’s a very odd argument. My husband used to teach at an elite liberal arts-oriented college pre-crisis, and the investment banks would recruit from the very brightest there, with little regard for area of study. It was just understood that all the smart kids could go into investment banking.
    “He doesn’t say squat about powerpoint. Somebody either missed the point of his work or is intentionally misreading it.”
    Isn’t that the way of the world? Somehow, you put research in one end of the education process, and dioramas, sparkly t-shirts, and glitter glue come out the other end, because that’s what far too many education people think of as “creative”.

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  14. Something very odd going on with the italics.
    Western Dave has Wagner about right. I admit it was less the main thesis than the description of the protocols for thinking about improving teaching that grabbed me, but the defense of a traditional liberal arts education was solid, and the claim that it’s not what schools in fact do is convincing. I feel a bit sorry for Wagner (but more so for the kids in Laura’s school district) — you say this kind of stuff, and you are bound to be misinterpreted and have it misapplied. What can you do?
    One huge problem is that administrators are often very defensive about change, try to avoid scrutiny, and elected officials don’t understand what their jobs are (setting goals, critically scrutinizing the district leadership, hiring and firing leaders, etc). Did all your board members read Wagner’s book? Did any?

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  15. problem remedied…
    No, I’m sure that nobody actually read the book. Yet, they use it as a weapon against parents who question their methods. The school principal is constantly telling parents that we couldn’t possible understand education policy. Last week, she told us that we couldn’t see the kid’s schedules for next year, because we couldn’t understand it. She also told us that we shouldn’t be helping the kids with homework. Yep, big middle finger at you, lady.
    What our district took away from the Wagner book is that kids should be doing more visual presentations and that they should primarily do group work. They are completely ignoring the part about written expression. The school bought some rubrics for grading assignments, which are simply horrific. Instead of a book report, Jonah had to make a scrapbook about a reading assignment. The teacher didn’t actually read the text in his book report. He lost points because the drawings that he made weren’t colored in. Don’t even get me started about the stupidity of groupwork in a writing class.

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  16. Whoa, Laura, that sounds totally crappy. I think Jonah and Geeky Girl are both in fifth grade, yes? GG has done tons of writing. They’ve done shorter, less complex versions of the same kinds of writing assignments I give college students–explanatory essays, summaries, literature analysis, persuasive essays–as well as some creative work. Whenever they do a visual presentation, which happens mostly in her gifted program, there’s a written assignment to go with it. Her schooling certainly isn’t perfect, but I’ve been happy with it. She’s in a different school–thanks to redistricting–than Geeky Boy was. I think he would have done well there.
    I’ve never been to a school board meeting, but my conversations with principals has always been great. They assume we’re smart people who are interested in what our kids are learning. They give us lots of information.
    Re: losing points on the book report–been there, done that. Middle School for boys. Sigh.

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  17. Middle School for boys.
    I remember that age. My brother, a friend, and I decided to build a fort in the backyard. For reasons I cannot recall (possibly because we didn’t have near enough wood), we decided a big basement was key. When dad came home from work and stopped us, we had a five foot deep hole, probably 12′ x 12′. It came in handy a few years later when the dog died.

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  18. “The school principal is constantly telling parents that we couldn’t possible understand education policy. Last week, she told us that we couldn’t see the kid’s schedules for next year, because we couldn’t understand it. ”
    And you didn’t say “I have a PhD; I think I can understand it”? I think they just don’t want anyone to see it. When I asked about the kids’ teachers last year, they told me that no one knew which teacher the kids were assigned to; they only knew who their fellow students were.
    I’m not getting involved in negotiating over which teacher E will have this year as I am saving all my arguing points for the following year when 2/3 possible teachers suck.

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  19. Last summer, I found myself out in the suburbs at one of the better local public elementary schools. There was a sign out in the hallway. I forget the exact phrasing of it, but the gist of it was, all of our teachers are wonderful, smart and caring, so don’t even ask for a particular teacher for your child. I’m still shaking my head over that one.

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  20. Group work sucks for good students. The teachers do not know how to implement it in any coherent way so that all students are held accountable (fire a friend? or the most popular person in the class? I don’t think so.) My daughter goes to one of these newfangled schools that is trying to emphasize STEM, along with these 20th century skills. Unfortunately in designing the curriculum, they English and Social Studies teachers want to make sure they don’t get short shrift so the amount of homework is 4-5 hours- A NIGHT! The math based classes do not have enough reimforcement of basic concepts through the group projects and the kids pass the Regents through outside tutoring (or don’t pass). I could go on and on. I don’t disagree with the 20th century skill set- but to achieve it all through group projects falls far short of truly educating.

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