Governor Snyder and State Superintendent Whiston recently announced a major initiative to emphasize occupational training in high school. At the same time the New York Times published an article on the efforts by technology industry billionaires to make coding a foundation skill required for all K-12 students.
Both are part of a broader effort by the business community and their political allies to make the primary purpose of education meeting the immediate needs of employers. Of course, most of those pushing for this kind of education are sending their kids to schools that are doing the exact opposite. Schools that are building broad liberal arts skills to prepare their kids for four-year degrees or more that lead to the best-paying forty-year careers as professionals and managers. Schools that are designed to expand, not limit, opportunities so that their kids can take advantage of opportunities any place on the planet, not just for what Michigan employers need today.
Detroit Free Press Columnist Nancy Kaffer got it exactly right when she wrote:
The same day, Gov. Rick Snyder and state Superintendent Brian Whiston endorsed new steps to further entrench career readiness for K-12 students, an extension of the governor’s position that education should be more closely calibrated to the current job market.
Snyder’s emphasis on education as a means to career readiness is nothing new. But it’s still short-sighted. The point of education should be education — the folks who have fared best in our rapidly changing economy aren’t workers with specific job training, but those who’ve been taught to think critically and express themselves clearly.
Training students for jobs that might be obsolete within the next decade means preloading another economic bust. It’s a business-friendly position, but it’s a bargain that seeks short-term job gains at the expense of long-term career prospects. And beyond that, there’s something inherently dangerous in shifting the intent of a public education and what that means for the Michiganders who trust the state to provide it.
This kind of narrowing education for others’ children almost certainly will retard their ability to have good-paying forty year careers. In an economy where jobs, occupations and industries are increasingly insecure largely because of smarter and smarter machines we need an education system that builds broad skills in all Michigan children, not narrow first job skills.
As we wrote in our new state policy agenda we need an education system built on two core principles:
First, that all children deserve the same education no matter whom their parents are. Without that we cannot live up to the core American value of equal opportunity for all. We are on the opposite track at the moment as both a country and a state.
The education that is provided for affluent kids is, by and large, designed and executed differently than it is for non-affluent kids. One system delivers a broad college prep (dare we say liberal arts) education, the other delivers an increasingly narrow education built around developing discipline and what is on the test or to narrowly preparing non-affluent children for a first job.
The second is that none of us have a clue what the jobs and occupations of the future will be. Today’s jobs are not a good indicator of what jobs will be when today’s K-12 students finish their careers in the 2050s or 2060s. We simply don’t know how smarter and smarter machines are going to change labor markets. So the purpose of pre K-12 education (maybe even pre K-16) is to build foundation skills that allow all Michigan children to have the agility and ability to constantly switch occupations. To be successful rock climbers.
If Michigan is going to be 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 birth through higher education that builds rigorous broad skills that are the foundation of successful forty-year careers.