Please take this forced-choice, 2-question test before continuing.
1. The primary business of public schools is to produce:
A. Educated students
2. Which more accurately describes the structure of public schools?
A. Teachers are ‘labor,’ and administrators are ‘management’
B. Students are ‘labor,’ and teachers are ‘management’
My hunch is that many of you selected ‘A’ as the better answer to both questions. After all, that’s the traditional model of school in which teachers teach and students learn. That is often known, pejoratively, as ‘the factory model’ in which teachers, the workers, teach facts and figures to students, who emerge from this assembly line after 12 years as ‘educated.’
Would most American businessmen and women select ‘A’ as the correct answers?
Probably, and therein lies the great paradox, or perhaps the confounding contradiction: Unhappy with the current system, American business devotes energy and money trying to ‘reform’ it. Someone needs to tell them that what they are doing is akin to buying faster ponies for the pony express. Faster ponies won’t get the mail delivered on time, and ‘reformed’ schools won’t provide the workforce that business needs.
(Nor will ‘reformed’ schools produce the healthy citizenry our nation needs, which means that business is on our side. They just don’t realize it–yet.)
Here’s what we know: Public school graduates do not possess the skills and capabilities that matter most to the CEOs of GE, duPont, Xerox, Amazon, JPMorgan/Chase and about 100 other leading companies. As a consequence, American companies are having difficulty finding the skilled workers they need. By some estimates at least 40% of corporations are leaving positions unfilled or are exporting the jobs they cannot fill at home. At a meeting of The Business Council in Chicago in May, duPont CEO Ellen J. Kullman spoke of having to screen over 600 résumés to find a few candidates worth interviewing (let alone hiring).
What does business value? For nine out of ten CEOs, the essential skills and capabilities are ‘work ethic,’ ‘teamwork,’ ‘decision making,’ ‘critical thinking,’ and ‘computer literacy.’ That’s according to a survey of 134 CEOs done by The Business Council and the Conference Board, whose ranks include most of America’s corporations. (101 CEOs responded.) Aristotle taught us that ‘we are what we repeatedly do.’ Applying that lesson to schools is simple enough: students ought to be engaged in activities that teach or reinforce those desired skills.
Unfortunately, these five skills are not taught in America’s classrooms. In fact, of the nine most valued skills, only two–‘basic reading and math’ and ‘writing and communications’–are school subjects. (The CEOs ranked them 6th and 7th.)
How well do the schools teach those two skills? Not very, the CEOs report. Asked to rate the capability of their current workforce, just 23% rated it as ‘very capable’ in basic reading and math; the ‘very capable’ rating for writing and communication drops to 15.5%.
In other words, schools are not emphasizing most of the skills businesses need, and the ones that school do stress–reading, math, writing and communication–they are not teaching effectively.
Why don’t our schools teach what business wants? It’s not as if American business hasn’t been involved in, and generally supportive of, public education at the local and national levels. The problem lies in the (now outdated) perception that teachers are the workers and students their product. That view must be scrapped before matters improve.
Here’s a brief history: In the last part of the 20th century, “school-business partnerships” were in vogue. These locally driven efforts often involved volunteers from businesses helping out in the schools, while their companies donated equipment and materials. When “partnerships” fell out of favor–probably because the results weren’t clear–they were often replaced by internship programs that put young people into ‘the world of work.’
Today many business leaders–impatient for results–support charter schools or charter school organizations like KIPP. Others put their prestige and dollars behind Teach for America, College Track, the Posse Foundation and other tightly focused programs.
The imprint of business is clearly visible at the national level. Although only two business leaders and one small businessman (a dentist) served on the 18-member commission that produced “A National at Risk” in 1983, its language and message could easily have been written by the US Chamber of Commerce. Its warning–our schools were ‘drowning in a rising tide of mediocrity’–sparked the school reform movement that continues today.
And while the first President Bush hosted the inaugural National Summit on Education in 1989, business soon took over. Summits #2 and #3 were convened by IBM CEO Louis V. Gerstner at IBM headquarters in Armonk, NY, with President Clinton an invited guest. These meetings and subsequent National Commissions coalesced around a central theme: the schools’ failure to produce enough high-caliber graduates was threatening our country’s economic leadership.
To business’ way of thinking, graduates were ‘product’ in a straightforward factory model paradigm: teachers were given raw material–kids–to turn into productive, capable young adults. In that factory model, teachers are the workers, so it’s not surprising that business leaders–management by definition–have not been natural allies of teacher unions.
If schools are going to improve dramatically, everyone–but especially the business community–needs to realize is that the old ‘factory model’ paradigm is no longer valid. Because of the information revolution, students–not teachers—must be the work force. They must become ‘knowledge workers,’ and their ‘product’ is knowledge.
In this new paradigm, teachers are now part of management, a concept that some people may have difficulty dealing with.
Here’s one way to understand what has changed. Before the internet era, schools served three primary functions: they (along with libraries) were the repository of knowledge–kids had to go there because that’s where knowledge was stored. Schools also socialized children–that’s where boys and girls, Catholics, Jews and Protestants, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans got to know each other. And, of course, schools provided custodial care so parents could work.
Today only #3 is unchanged–working parents still need a safe place to leave their children. But schools are no longer ‘the repository of knowledge,’ because today’s children swim in a sea of information, 24/7. However, ‘information’ is not knowledge, and so in this new paradigm our schools have a new duty and challenge: they must help teach young people how to sift through the flood of information and determine what is true. That’s the ‘work’ that students–now knowledge workers–must be doing, formulating questions and finding their answers. Unfortunately, our outmoded schools are little more than ‘answer factories’ where students regurgitate (often on bubble tests) what they have been told.
As for socialization, it’s not an exaggeration to say that kids have access to hundreds of apps that serve that purpose. It’s like pen pals on steroids. So ‘socialization’ takes on new meaning with our children, who are, in the popular lexicon, ‘digital natives.’ Today schools need educators who understand that their job is to transform these digital natives into digital citizens, not an insignificant distinction. These young digital citizens can use technology to create knowledge–their work. But when they are not encouraged and allowed to do this, many will–out of boredom or malice–use the dazzling variety of tools we call ‘social media’ to harass and abuse the most vulnerable among them.
If we allow schools to be regurgitation factories where students are mere product; if we judge teachers simply based on the test scores of their ‘product;’ and if we allow schools to ignore the awesome potential of technology, then we will have schools where the brightest students are bored and the most vulnerable are bullied.
In this new paradigm, where students are knowledge workers, what should schools look like? Recall Aristotle’s lesson: “We are what we repeatedly do.” If we do not want adults who do little more than regurgitate, then they should not do that day after day after day in classrooms. Instead, they must be developing the skills and capabilities that we want them to have as adults. It’s a tall order: Students must master the ‘basic skills of numeracy, reading and writing and the ‘new basics’ that include speaking persuasively, listening carefully and critically, working collaboratively, and the use of modern technology.
While this new paradigm, students as ‘knowledge workers,’ can be seen in hundreds of schools, the fact is we have nearly 100,000 public schools. We are a long way from the tipping point. Are we moving, educationally speaking, in the right direction?
We might be. America has embarked on a huge national experiment called the Common Core, a set of common standards for math and English embraced by all but five states. This moment of seminal change offers an opportunity for American business to speak up and demand a ‘common core’ where students repeatedly do what will serve them in good stead as adult citizens, parents and workers.
No one needs to create a curriculum out of whole cloth to teach decision-making, teamwork, a strong work ethic, communication and critical thinking. Those skills are fundamental to most extra-curricular activities: playing sports, working in theatrical productions, playing in a musical group, and producing the school newspaper, radio or TV program or yearbook. In those activities (let’s get smart and call them ‘co-curricular’), students are clearly the workers, and their work products are tangible.
That new/old thinking–”We are what we repeatedly do”–can transform public education, make school much more interesting and challenging for students, reverse that rising tide of mediocrity….and cure American business’ persistent headache.