Monday, November 26, 2012

Cheating the American Dream

In my last post, I cited Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column about how high tech jobs that pay well were going unfilled due to American job hunters’ lack of skills. I was attempting to make the case that a return to the inclusion of vocational training in our high schools was  needed to boost our economy and improve the prospects of many Americans. Not two days after I posted, Adam Davidson, also reporting in the New York Times, wrote an article that cut the legs out from under my argument. Davidson wrote about employers lowballing wages for high skill workers. His piece included the demoralizing fact that shift managers at McDonald’s make more than workers with needed high tech skills.

According to Davidson, “Nearly six million factory jobs, almost a third of the entire manufacturing industry, have disappeared since 2000.” Much of that has been because of higher productivity due to increased computerization of manufacturing equipment. Of course Friedman and others have been making the case that though those jobs are likely gone forever, the computerized manufacturing tools still needed people to program them and guide their operation. That’s where the high tech skills come in.

All of that goes out the window if, in fact, manufacturers are successful at keeping the wages lower than those for non-skilled work. This seems, on the face of it, to be taking advantage of people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a position of low leverage. But just as much it seems like a self-defeating proposition for the manufacturers as well. After all, someone has to make enough money to purchase whatever it is that they are manufacturing. Even as tough a capitalist as Henry Ford realized that he benefitted when he paid his workers enough to buy one of his cars. Hopefully this is a temporary blip, and market forces will drive wages for high tech jobs up.

Regardless, it is long past time for American business to get past the greed is good mythology which Gordon Gekko sermonized about in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.  Stone surely never intended for Gekko’s greed to resonate in a positive way as it has seemed to in the last few years. While greed certainly motivates entrepreneurs to do the heavy lifting needed to make a business succeed, it has its limits.

One of those limits will be forcing itself on our attention if we don’t find a way to replace most of the jobs that have been lost in the Great Recession with ones that can support a middle class existence. The American dream has long been a promise that hard work will lead to success, and forcing so many people out of the middle class makes a mockery of that dream. More selfishly for employers, though, without higher pay, what is the incentive for students to work hard in school and get that next higher level of training? It is not hard to envision a downward spiral that weakens our economy and further erodes America’s competitiveness.

America led the way in constructing a nearly universal, free, public education that was critical in fostering the beliefs central to the American dream. If all we have to offer, however, is a choice between going to college or the dismal prospects afforded by low skilled jobs at fast food restaurants and big-box stores, we create a cutthroat competition that will benefit a select few and condemn the rest to a lifetime of meager hopes.

Hopefully, our better natures will rise to the top and remind us once again that paying workers a wage commensurate with the skills they have worked to attain will benefit the workers as well as improve the long term prospects of the company that hired them.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College

Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century, Part 5 

In the first installment of this series, I talked about how high schools have a two-track system: advanced courses for the top students, and a one-size-fits-all program for everyone else. Part 2 looked at how to improve accountability to move instruction back to what students need to succeed in life. Part 3 questioned the wisdom of the current shift in American high school curriculum to a nearly complete focus on college preparation.  In Part 4, the topic was the need to breathe life back into Career Technical Education.

Despite the nearly 8% unemployment rate caused by the Great Recession, three million jobs are unfilled and going begging. Thomas Friedman, in his New York Times column today cited this anomaly and noted, “Every decent-paying job today takes more skill and more education, but too many Americans aren’t ready.”

Most of us know a recent college graduate who hasn’t been able to get a job yet, or an over 50 college graduate who lost a job and can’t get another. Why don’t they have the education they need to get these jobs? The disconnect is not that too many Americans are under-educated, it is that many bought the wrong kind of education. As I discussed in my last post, the mantra for the last several years has been college, college, college. Consequently, students have opted to pursue four year degrees in a market that was becoming saturated with holders of four year degrees.

Friedman’s column describes the difficulties of Wyoming Machine, a company that was a sub-contractor for another company with a contract to armor Humvees for the military. Unfortunately, Wyoming Machine’s owners couldn’t find welders with the skills needed for the work. According to owner Traci Tapani, “They could make beautiful welds, but they did not understand metallurgy, modern cleaning, and brushing techniques.” Compounding the issue, was that the work involved high levels of technology and low volumes of production, requiring the workers to be able to constantly work with different drawings and technical specifications. She solved the problem by hiring her own trainer, but she still finds it difficult to locate suitable recruits. The way Tapani sees it, “If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it’s bent to a certain angle.” Not enough job applicants have the background to be able to do this.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we need more sources for this kind of training at junior colleges and private trade schools. But the other part is that more students need to graduate from high school ready and willing to get this kind of education and pursue these careers. For that to happen, American high schools have to back off of the emphasis we have been placing on preparing students to pursue a four-year college degree, and get comfortable helping students realize that the traditional academic college experience might not be the best choice for them.

As I argued previously, high school educators have had to become very careful when introducing anything to do with careers into their curriculum. Talking about careers pretty easily begins to sound like vocational training to some people, which then smacks of how in the bad old days, schools shunted low performing students into vocational programs with low expectations. America’s future, educators have been led to believe, lay in more students going to college. Often the default response of high school educators has been to avoid saying career too loudly or even at all for fear of committing career suicide. As Friedman’s column emphasizes, the danger of this attitude is too few opportunities for students, and too few adults with the skills needed to find well-paid work.

Career Technical Education (CTE), a less threatening euphemism for what used to be called Vocational Education, has been subsisting at the margins for the last ten years or so, bravely soldiering on and trying to get anyone to listen while quietly creating a new generation of programs that prepare students for work while helping them learn high level academic skills. There are many excellent models in place all over the country. They just need more people to pay attention. 

One excellent example of CTE in action is the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) in Clovis, California. CART is organized around four career clusters with several career-specific laboratories. The school is project based and works closely with local and regional business partners as well as post-secondary institutions to provide real-world connections for students. The CART facility was designed to look more like a business than a school, with high tech labs situated around a central courtyard and adjoining classrooms that look more like corporate conference rooms. Each lab is paired with an academic class, say English or social science, along with an academic teacher who partners with the lab teacher. Together they integrate the academic work and the lab work into the design of the project the students work on.

If you get a chance to visit CART or any of the CTE programs, you will likely learn that the key to CTE is context. As Friedman’s column points out, preparing students for a career doesn’t mean dumbing down the material. Students need to learn high levels of math, science, and communications skills to succeed in the real world. CTE, however, provides that instruction in the context of real world learning by matching it with instruction in the specific skills of a particular career. This gives meaning and purpose to what needs to be learned, making it much easier for students to engage with the material, and giving them a reason to learn it. Plus, it enables students to acquire valuable training that can lead to a well-paying job.

This can and should begin to happen in every high school, but the world is too complex to allow most students to finish their education there. Virtually all students need to prepare in high school for the most appropriate post-secondary education for them. 

Our job as educators is to stop pushing one choice over the others. Some students have career aspirations that should lead them to choose a program leading to a four year degree. Some of these will begin that degree quest by attending a two year institution and working through the academic side of the college’s program, perhaps earning an associate degree on the way. Other students’ career choices will also lead them to a JC, but focusing on the CTE side of the program. These students may also strive to earn an associate degree, but often earn an industry certification or participate in an apprenticeship program. Still others will choose to attend a private institution offering career specific education, and again likely earning industry certification of some kind.

High schools should be designing curriculum that isn’t biased toward four year degree programs. Because educators have four year degrees doesn’t mean every student needs one as well. Rather we should be arming parents and students with the information they need to analyze the student’s skills and preferences along with data forecasting where job markets are trending. 

This is not just good for students, it’s good for America.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Re-Energizing Career and Technical Education

Part 4 of Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century

In the first installment of this series, I talked about how high schools have a two-track system: advanced courses for the top students, and a one-size-fits-all program for everyone else. Part 2 looked at how to improve accountability to move instruction back to what students need to succeed in life. Part 3 questioned the wisdom of the current shift in American high school curriculum to a nearly complete focus on college preparation. 

When the high school where I work was built in 1991, it included four shop rooms. Only two of them are currently used, with eight scheduled classes for a student body of 2500 students. What changed in twenty years to make the forecasted need mostly disappear? As I discussed in my last post, for what seemed to be good reasons, educators became convinced that every student needed to go to college. So for the last several years, the graduation requirements have communicated to students and parents the need prepare to qualify upon graduation to meet the admission requirements of the University of California system. Shop classes would have had to be dramatically adapted to meet these standards, and so, with the exception of some specialized programs, have been largely eliminated. Essentially, we effectively doomed the chances that shop class would attract any but the least committed students. 

Unfortunately, even the President has weighed in on this issue, setting a goal that by 2020 America would once again have the highest proportion of graduates in the world. I guess this is a worthy goal, but it adds to the general sense that a college degree is the only respectable choice.

Clearly, vocational education needed a makeover to survive, so now it is known as Career and Technical Education (CTE). Realizing that it would be crushed by the college prep juggernaut, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education now defines the ideal CTE programs, as, "...rigorous, blended college preparatory and career oriented instruction." This  mean that if you can't teach it as college prep, you can't teach it. 

Look more closely at the man behind the curtain, though, and reality makes a costumed appearance. When educators say high school students should graduate prepared for college, that sounds like they mean prepared to pursue a bachelor's degree, but that's not really the case. Reading carefully, you discover a more cautious wording, something like "postsecondary education and training" is needed to secure a middle class paycheck. The result, at least in California, is that we seem to be asking students to meet the admission requirements of one of the most prestigious universities in the country, though we really only mean that they need to be ready to go to a junior college or a private vocational college. Unfortunately, this focus on college prep subtly but clearly communicates that graduating from college is the true ideal, and anything less is a fall back position.

It’s become so bad that, despite the fact nearly everyone thinks high school students should begin thinking about and preparing for a career, educators are so preoccupied with preparing students for college that we make only a token effort to have a comprehensive discussion with students about potential careers, career goals, and what they need to do to prepare for the career of their choice. Paradoxically, a better career is ostensibly the whole reason we are preparing them for college in the first place.

So, job one is to put "career" back into the high school vocabulary. We need to stop pretending that every student needs to make earning a bachelor's degree the only acceptable goal. 

But we also need to make sure that career doesn't take on the old connotations that used to attach to the term “vocational.” Career education has to avoid becoming a dumping ground for students like it often used to be, which means that educators must at all costs avoid the trap of taking responsibility for making the decisions about which students pursue which track. Our job is to arm students and parents with information: which courses prepare students for admission to a university and which don’t; what do particular careers pay, and what is the market for those jobs like; what skills are required for not only the career, but the education required to achieve that career; what are the student’s academic strengths. The task for the parents and the student is to decide what is best for the student. When school staff presume to make these life-altering choices, we are asking to be blamed if it doesn’t work out. Moreover, we are asking to be blamed for bias, whether those biases are perceived or real.

The other critical task for educators is to make sure that all courses are designed with the understanding that, while the various courses may prepare students for different post-secondary destinations, all students have to emerge from high school with the ability to think and solve problems creatively. The high paying jobs that are in demand now, require workers to do more than mindlessly process parts on an assembly line–those jobs have either fled the country, are being done by robots, or pay only a dead-end wage.

High schools need to prepare students with the math and logic needed to program those robots, or any computerized equipment that manufactures the customized, small-run, high-profit products that will be the mainstay of a successful American economy in the future. Medical technology is exploding, and technicians will be needed to maintain and operate these new machines, requiring perhaps an associate degree or an industry certification, but certainly requiring understanding of math and science concepts. As energy generation and transmission systems advance, technical jobs that don't yet exist will be created that will go to workers with the ability to master new skills that build on the foundations mastered in CTE courses in high school as well as post secondary settings.

And so on.

Perhaps CTE is a better term for what used to be called vocational, but by whatever name, it needs to be perceived as more than the college-prep step child it currently is. We would serve both the present and future needs of students more effectively if we would raise the status of CTE, and that starts with admitting that it is different than college prep–not better or less, just different.

The topic for the last post in this series will be: High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Do We Really Need More College Grads?

Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century - Part 3

In the first installment of this series, I talked about how high schools have a two-track system: advanced courses for the top students, and a one-size-fits-all program for everyone else. Part 2 looked at how to improve accountability to move instruction back to what students need to succeed in life.

Some time in the past five or six years, American high schools began to be inundated with another flood of reform. This one was predicated on the belief that to succeed in life, every student had to go to college. To that end, we changed all of our curriculum to focus on college prep. Nearly every course had to be redesigned so that it would be accepted as a college preparation course. Graduation requirements were rewritten to become “more rigorous" and prepare students for college. Algebra got pushed earlier and earlier so that students would complete more math during high school and be ready for the rigors of college math. Anything remotely smelling of vocational preparation became a harder and harder sell, and suffered greatly reduced emphasis in the curriculum.

We meant well. After all, we had all heard the statistics about how high school graduates make about half of what workers with a bachelor’s degree make. Over a lifetime, the difference is $1.2 million of earnings for a high school graduate compared to $2.5 million for bachelor’s degree holders. It’s difficult to ignore that data.

What we ought to have been asking, of course, was why is that premium offered to college graduates? If you paid attention during your economics class, you know that the answer is supply and demand–college graduates have been scarce enough that they could demand and receive higher pay. Since the 60’s, the college attainment rate, the percent of adults who have a bachelor’s degree, has fluctuated around 30%. This would seem to indicate that the top 30% of jobs are available to holders of bachelor’s degrees, assuming that individuals make reasonably rational choices in pursuing a degree, and would not do so if the financial rewards weren’t generally commensurate with the investment of time and effort.

What happens, then, if we succeed and drastically increase the number of students who pursue and attain a bachelor’s degree? Is there going to be a corresponding growth in jobs that pay those higher wages? Perhaps, but more likely we will have discovered a disconnect between cause and effect in operation. Greater numbers of college graduates, in and of itself, does not necessarily increase the number of jobs available to those graduates.

Perhaps there is demand for more workers with college degrees, although the difficulty that recent college graduates have experienced does not bode well in that regard. As the recession recedes, undoubtedly the demand will increase some. The question is how much?

Everything I read suggests to me it is likely that, even if demand is increasing, there is a corresponding increase in competition for those higher paying jobs, not only in this country, but from college graduates all over the world. As far as I can see, even were we to drastically succeed in increasing the college attainment rate (which is not necessarily a foregone conclusion), it is likely that the competition would drastically decrease the financial earning power of those degrees. This is certainly an unintended outcome.

The second question we ought to have been asking about the college prep reform movement is whether or not every student is college material. Though we are loathe to admit it, not every student is temperamentally, emotionally, or conceptually suited for college. Deeply rooted in the American psyche is the notion that we can do whatever we put our minds to. So, instead of looking realistically at where students really were, we earnestly included in our core belief statements the banal triviality, “Every student can learn.” This is about like saying water is wet. Of course every student can learn. The issue isn’t whether they can learn or not, the issue is how quickly can any individual student learn something in comparison to other students.

You don’t have to spend very long in a classroom to be convinced that there are vast differences between the rates at which students learn. Not only that, but the ability to manipulate abstract concepts with a high degree of facility, which is a key to success in college, is also not distributed evenly throughout the population. It is a mystery to me how anyone can realistically look at the wide range of student performance in the average high school and believe that every student can, during four years of high school, become prepared to enter college.

What should have been our focus is how the world economy has changed our job market, so that high school graduates can no longer expect to go directly to earning a middle class wage without pursuing post-secondary education. The halcyon post World War II years when that was true are permanently gone, and we owe it to students to make sure they look beyond high school to the next next step in their education. The question, though, is does that post-secondary experience need to be the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree?

To me the answer is unequivocally, no. Yet, does it hurt anything to prepare students for college even if they will never attend? It does for two reasons.

First is that it undermines the teacher’s efforts to engage students. By pretending that every student is going to college, we are constantly answering the question about why they are learning this material with the reply that they need it for college. For the students who are firm in their conviction that they will attend college, this is important motivation. Most students, however, aren’t that firm. Some know good and well that there is no chance they will go to college, nor do they have any interest in doing so. Others have a vague idea they “should” go to college, but there is neither conviction nor a sense of reality about any plan to do so. For these non-committed, “You need it for college,” does not motivate them to engage in the hard work of learning the material. They need a better reason, one more embedded in a concrete reality that they can relate to their own future.

The second reason is of course that by focusing on college prep, we are missing opportunities to teach specific skills that these students really will need.

Career and technical education programs, which are the topic of my next post, address these needs.

Future posts will discuss:

  • Re-Energizing Career and Technical Education
  • High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College