Jobs for the future, who decides?

This is the sixth of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website.

Privatising Schools: Question Six

Daisy Christodoulou, a businesswoman who has been a significant influence on English education policy, has said that ‘the goal of education is work readiness.’ Could you comment?

My Response:

Industry has attempted to align our nation’s public education system to its human capital requirements for decades. Most education activists in the United States are familiar with Marc Tucker’s 1992 “Dear Hillary Letter” in which he laid out the National Center on Education and the Economy’s proposal for a “seamless system of unending skill development that begins in the home with the very young and continues through school, post-secondary education, and the workplace.” Tucker’s letter to the Clintons outlined a plan that included national education standards and one year of free college leading to a sub-baccalaureate degree.

Tucker felt the American public would more readily accept this branding than they would a European apprenticeship model. His idea was to have a system of modular professional standards, a computerized employment service, and a system of regional labor market boards to coordinate activities. Today we see these systems coming together in the form of career pathways. Twenty-five years after Tucker’s initial proposal, states including Colorado and Washington are adopting a Swiss training model that aims to direct 2/3 of high school students into “middle skills” certification programs rather than traditional four-year college degrees. These folks play a very long game.

Developments around cloud-based computing, educational technology, an online alternative credentialing paved the way for a new approach to human resource management. Now Blockchain transcripts and digital badging (see Credly in the UK) systems are poised to take things to a whole other level. Schools are being redesigned to maximize flexibility, preference social-emotional skills over academic knowledge, and push the inevitability of “lifelong learning” (reskilling). In 2014, the year before ESSA was passed, President Obama signed the Workforce Opportunities and Innovation Act (WIOA) and put many elements of Tucker’s plan in motion. WIOA and ESSA are complementary pieces of legislation.

Behind the scenes, non-profits like Jobs for the Future (JFF) have spearheaded the adoption of policies intended to integrate public education into workforce training. The Gates Foundation has poured over $100 million into JFF since 2009. Workforce development is also being positioned as a market for “pay for success” social impact finance. America Forward, a coalition of 70 social innovation organizations, strongly advocated for the incorporation of Pay for Success provisions into ESSA. Not surprisingly, one the first two PFS contracts issued after its adoption was for CTE training of high-need youth.

Academic standards around career and work have been incorporated into curriculum at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. In cities like San Diego, corporate influencers through the United Way are advancing consortia whose goal is direct students into “high-demand industries” like advanced manufacturing, clean energy and information and communication technology. Pressure to decide on a career pathway ramps up for students in middle school when they are subjected to a barrage of surveys and strengths assessments, often run by third party, data-mining software companies like Naviance, a subsidiary of Hobson which is owned by the Daily Mail and General Trust in the UK.

We hear the mantra of “College and Career Ready” readiness constantly. Renewed interest in careers has been driven by skyrocketing tuition costs and increasingly bleak economic prospects for many Americans. People are looking for stability for their children, and they have been made to feel that pre-professional training in K12 settings is the best way to achieve that. Emphasis on academic rigor under NCLB, to the point where half the students in some states were not meeting the requirements of newly imposed high school exit exams, created significant backlash and fueled renewed interest in career and vocational training (CTE).

Unfortunately, many parents and teachers do not realize that CTE education within the Ed Reform 2.0 context is not intended be carried out in public school settings, but rather through outsourced placements. Instead of students being taught by qualified educators trained in pedagogy and child development, they will be sent off to work assignments of uncertain quality and safety.

Big Picture Learning is a school management organization based in Rhode Island that is backed by prominent reformers like Ted Dintersmith and has expanded across the United States and internationally. Their model has students participating in Learning Through Internship (LTI) placements two days per week, though some placements never materialize and students are left languishing in sad computer labs. Big Picture has created an internship app with the software company Salesforce that tracks students during their placements and captures data about the competencies, including social-emotional ones, they demonstrate outside school. Eventually these competencies will be collected at badges on Blockchain. Given that up to 40% of Big Picture’s instruction takes place off-site, the model is aligned to austerity funding policies that continue to strip resources from neighborhood schools under the guise of school reinvention.

Many states now have designated priority career clusters and programs directing students into “in-demand jobs.” However I question if these interventions are actually intended to serve the interests of the next generation. I don’t think they are. Is it fair to place students on pathways to careers that may not exist in a decade? Is it ethical for companies to expect schools to redesign curriculum to meet industry standards? How likely is it that private interests seek to control human capital in ways that leads to an oversupply of applicants and depressed wages?

I think a far better model would be to fully fund K12 education, offering a rich liberal arts education with a wide range of elective and extracurricular activities. THEN offer free or low cost CTE training after students reach the age of 18 and better understand their capabilities and desires. The idea that a thirteen year old would be in any position to make major life and career decisions, especially given doomsday scenarios of a future of automated labor floating around, seems ludicrous at best.

Part One: Talking Across the Pond Here

Part Two: Virtual Reality and Globalized Workforce Here

Part Three: “Personalized Learning” Driven By Data Here

Part Four: We Haven’t Won, We’re Testing All The Time Here

Part Five: Focus on Pedagogy First Here

One thought on “Jobs for the future, who decides?

  1. Laura H. Chapman says:

    Mid-century last, federal officials established the National Science Foundation, along with the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. The missions of these institutions are not exactly the same, but that was the last time there was even a nod to ideal and ideals of those studies and achievements in American life.

    What a pity that all three institutions have been operating in silos and that only with real prodding (from me among others) did the Arts Endowment even assume any obligation to work with schools other than as a potential employer of artists.

    If there is a gold standard for general education, I think it is found in programs where studies in the arts, sciences, and humanities are brought together with the childen learning to read, write, compute and think about these varieties of human accomplishment and the relevance they have for today.

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