The case for building broad skills for all

The Partnership for 21st  Century Learning (P21) has developed an approach to education for all children that is designed to develop the skills that employers hire for. Those same skills are the foundation that all of us will increasingly need to adjust to constant change in labor markets.

What follows in bullet form is the case for why this kind of broad education is what we should provide all Michigan children:

Future careers

  1. Globalization and technology are mega forces constantly changing the economy. It is the prime cause of the transition from a goods-producing––predominantly factory-based––economy to a service-providing economy. Goods-producing work is increasingly done elsewhere or by machines. A trend that has not been reversed––despite conventional wisdom to the contrary––post Great Recession.
  2. Today’s mass middle class is concentrated in knowledge-based services: education; health care and social services; finance and insurance; information; professional services; and management of companies. These are the sectors that combine both job growth and the highest wages. What is common to each of these industries is they employ the highest proportion of professionals and managers. Those with four year degrees of more.
  3. Clearly the economy is rewarding those with the highest education attainment the most. And the gap––particularly for those with a graduate degree––is increasing. So higher skills are needed for higher pay clearly is one of the new realities of an economy being driven by globalization and technology.
  4. So is the reality––no matter what your education attainment––that your job, your occupation, and even the industry you are in are less stable/secure today that yesterday and almost certainly will be less stable/secure tomorrow than today. Technology and globalization are accelerating creative destruction; destroying jobs and occupations and creating new, unimaginable, jobs and occupations at a quicker and quicker pace.
  5. We use the analogy that in a world driven by globalization and technology, people will build successful careers by being like rock climbers instead of ladder climbers. The notion of a career ladder––predictable and linear steps upwards––in a world that is constantly changing is obsolete. Rather people will need to be like rock climbers––constantly adjusting to new opportunities and challenges. And then resourceful so they can take advantage of those opportunities.
  6. Another new reality is the shift from left brain to right brain work. Left brain tasks being those easiest to automate and outsource. Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind includes design, story telling, synthesis and empathy in the right brain aptitudes that will increasingly be in demand in the labor market.

Education for good paying careers

  1. Michigan’s current k-12 system is focused primarily on building content specific, left brain, cognitive skills. The kind of skills that are on standardized tests. Pre Common Core at not very rigorous levels in Michigan, resulting in the kind of failing grades the state earned from the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
  2. It is increasingly clear that those skills are not what employers are primarily looking for nor are they the most important skills for college success. What matters more are both the non cognitive skills detailed in Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: grit, self control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. And non content specific cognitive skills delineated by P21: creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking (the Four Cs).
  3. Developed out of a frustration by leading edge companies with the skills recent graduates were bringing to the workplace P21 provides a description of what skills employers need and how to organize schools to develop those broad and rigorous non content specific cognitive skills.
  4. 19 states have partnered with the Partnership for 21st Century Learning
  5. If Michigan is going to be, as we were for most of the 20th Century, a place with a broad middle class it is clear that it will occur because we commit to an education system that develops rock climbers. One based on broad skills. Not narrowly focused on jobs that are available today nor solely on content specific skills measured by standardized tests.
  6. The Common Core is a major step in the right direction. More rigorous standards; moving from knowing content to knowing how to use content; and a platform on which you can build a pedagogy to develop both the four Cs and non cognitive skills.
  7. The danger is that potential will not be realized. That schools will continue to narrow curriculum to what is on the test. Driving out of schools right brain skill development; non cognitive skill development and non content specific cognitive skill development.
  8. The same danger exists in the push from many business, political and media leadership to move back toward occupation specific skills building. Once again the potential is there to use careers and industry themes to build broad forty year career skills rather than narrow first job skills.
  9. Most of the schools in Michigan today that are organized around building broad skills, like the four Cs, are schools which affluent students attend. Private schools and public schools districts with a high proportion of students from affluent families where most parents have a four year degree or more. These are schools designed from early childhood on to be college prep schools. The parents understand that the most reliable path to good paying careers is a four year degree or more and the development of a broad, non occupational specific, skills set that will build a foundation for their children to be successful over a forty year career which will be characterized by constant change.
  10. If Michigan is going to a place with a broad middle class, if employers are going to have the supply of skilled workers they need and if Michigan is going to be a place once again where kids regularly do better than their parents it will happen because the state made a commitment to provide an education system for all from early childhood through higher education that builds broad skills with rigor that are the foundation of successful forty year careers.


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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. I agree that Michigan (and the rest of the United States) need to see an increasing number of our students graduate with 4 year degrees or even more. But I do not think 100% of them need to. Even the highly affluent states like Minnesota and Massachusetts do not have nearly 100% with a 4 year degree. First, I agree that manufacturing will employ a lower and lower per cent of our workers, and even those who do stay in manufacturing will probably need higher skills. But manufacturing is not going away completely, and will still employ Michigan people for the foreseeable future. Secondly there are a lot of technical or junior college trained people who are needed to provide services for those of us who are fortunate enough to have 4 year degrees. We did some remodeling on our house recently, and I am thankful for the carpenter who did most of the work. He was trained through an apprenticeship rather than a college. I am also thankful for the skilled mechanics who maintain and repair my care when I need it. A couple of years ago when I was in the hospital for 4 days to have some significant surgery the doctors and nurses held 4 year degrees and more. But many of the therapists and other hospital workers did not have a 4 year degree, and they did a great job.
    So, inclusion I believe we need an increasing number and per cent of college graduates. But I do not think it has to be close to 100%. Humans all are unique with different gifts. There are people who are not as gifted at doing college level academic work, but who are very gifted in some of the other areas I have mentioned.

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