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MSPnet Blog: “Buzzwords: Education and readiness for what?”

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posted January 18, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

Each generation is inclined to educate its young so as to get along in the present world instead of with a view to the proper end of education: the promotion of the best possible realization of humanity as humanity. Parents educate their children so that they may get on; princes educate their subjects as instruments of their own purposes…[Kant writes] “Rulers are simply interested in such training as will make their subjects better tools for their own intentions.”  From Democracy and Education, Ch. 7

Today’s topic: the “employability narrative.” Two recent posts by favorite bloggers of mine — Larry Cuban and Audrey Watters — happened to take differing but complementary slants on this question, and mostly my goal here is to get you to go read those people.

Cuban writes (here) about “flawed assumptions” that have driven main-stream school reform since at least A Nation At Risk (1983), assumptions, viz.,

that U.S. students don’t measure up to international students; low test scores are signs that U.S. students are unable to enter successfully the new information-driven workplace….The new economy requires different and far more complex skills than the industrial-based one since the late-19th century. Students need to learn more, faster, and better. And graduates equipped with those skills–schools growing “human capital” is the jargon –will get high-paying jobs benefiting themselves and the economy will be stronger in the global marketplace benefiting society.

The late, lamented Gerry Bracey was a master at showing how the numbers that were used to bolster these and other elements of mainstream reform were cherry-picked and casuistic, usually biased towards market-based remedies.  Cuban uses the testimony of economists to counter the economist-driven view of education, and makes the simple point that most of the “human capital” models of the cause-and-effect relationship of education reform (including heavy investments in technology, accountability mania, etc.) just have not produced the predicted results.

Meanwhile, Audrey Watters at has an extensive essay on the “employability narrative” in her roundup of top ed-tech trends for 2015.  Watters wrote cogently in her 2014 roundup about “school as skills,” and that post remains very well worth reading.  Her 2015 post ranges over job-training, the so-called skills gap, the “Everyone should code” movement, and issues of diversity and “the meritocracy lie.”   The fundamental question is (surprise!), what is the point of education?   So much of the turmoil, damage, and insufficiently understood experimentation of the modern era has accepted almost without question

the powerful narrative that the primary purpose of education – at both the K–12 and university levels – is to prepare students for the workforce.

One result of this has been to home in more and more on skills and generic “readiness” as estimated by some standardized test.  This makes education more like an economic transaction, with discrete quantities being produced and measured, and inputs of various kinds being designed as commercial products (nostrums, sometimes) to be deployed to get the right outcomes.  Of course there are millions of well-intentioned people, most of them more knowledgeable than I, who see this as a powerful way to proceed, but it does sound rather like education as an engineering challenge and industrial process.  This makes it more tractable for accountability systems, and also for entrepreneurs and capitalists of many kinds.  Somehow, though, no matter how few excuses we accept, how much we cut the budgets, how high we set our standards, the “achievement gap” is not closed, all children are not proficient at specified points in time, and SES variables are the best predictors of success by the measures deemed most appropriate.

It’s the 100th anniversary of the publication of Dewey’s Democracy and Education.  The book is not the “last word” on education, but it is so wise and so radical that every re-reading is an education in democracy, education, and humane thought.  To our point, recall how Dewey discusses the flaws of “education as preparation” which, by the way, always entails (100 years ago it was evident and evidently flawed) ill-conceived standardizations of many kinds:

A third undesirable result is the substitution of a conventional average standard of expectation and requirement for a standard which concerns the specific powers of the individual under instruction. For a severe and definite judgment based upon the strong and weak points of the individual is substituted a vague and wavering opinion concerning what youth may be expected, upon the average, to become in some more or less remote future; say, at the end of the year, when promotions are to take place, or by the time they are ready to go to college or to enter upon what, in contrast with the probationary stage, is regarded as the serious business of life….

You’d think that education, as the quintessential learning profession, would have noticed the crazy repetitive waves of trial and error over the past century or so — but then education “reform”  has rarely been driven by educators who have had the time and resources to learn from history.

the principle of preparation makes necessary recourse on a large scale to the use of adventitious motives of pleasure and pain…Everybody knows how largely systems of punishment have had to be resorted to by educational systems which neglect present possibilities in behalf of preparation for a future. Then, in disgust with the harshness and impotency of this method, the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme, and the dose of information required against some later day is sugar-coated, so that pupils may be fooled into taking something which they do not care for.

Stepping back: As I was working on this post, I asked myself, ‘Why do I find it so urgent to see, name, and question foundational assumptions underlying the rhetoric and design of educational policy? I mean, aside from some personality quirk, or the natural desire not to be imposed upon, do I think there’s some consequence for action?’ Dissatisfaction or disequilibrium, Dewey would argue, is the root of inquiry — that is, it can be, if you let the disquiet generate questions and strategies for pursuing them productively.

If I have done this to the point that some new clarity is reached, I am to that extent less alienated from my world — but then I also have grown (maybe a very little bit), have a greater capacity to use that understanding. How? Well, one can [1] conscientiously refuse to cooperate or reproduce misguided policy or rhetoric; or [2] take part in efforts to undo or oppose bad policy and practice; or [3] find ways to work around (or replace or undermine) a bad situation with better policy, practice, or rhetoric; or, I guess, [4]]create discomfort in others, so they can undertake their own inquiries. Well, here’s hoping!

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This blog post has 11 comments, showing all.

Ed Reform, Workforce Development and Dewey

posted by: Joseph Gardella on 1/19/2016 7:55 am

Hello Brian: Nice topic for MLK, Jr. Day.

I appreciate this discussion, personally, having discussed with my son in his early part of the college career, his desire to leave Theater studies to do History, and his worry that neither would make him prepared for a job following college...while his (STEM) father was telling him to study what he was passionate about, not what would "lead to a job".

He was living with students at a public university where job losses among their parents following the recession in 2008 caused them to warn him loudly that studying Humanities was a path to failure, or a job as a barista.

He's successfully finishing up a major in History this year, having found his muse in college, and his parents are thrilled. He has a minor in GIS/Geography which gives him some "quantitative" skills....I am told by my colleagues in History.

I share that personal story because I am caught between these arguments daily in thinking about the future of our MSP program ISEP. I argue to the State of New York that investment in that program for STEM education opportunities for kids in Buffalo is part of "Workforce Development". I'm told our present Governor Cuomo thinks Workforce Development is about retraining only, and does not see K-12 education as part of it.

I am trying to argue the more general proposition that research shows that decisions about math and science (and obviously what we now call STEM) are made in middle school leading to leaky pipeline there for women and under-represented minorities.

So if parents and students lose out in middle school on opportunities to think about STEM careers, we are shutting them out of that choice.

I hope it works, as a pragmatic progressive (thanks Hillary for that one), I just want to get the result that allows us to continue the long hard slog of work to make better STEM education and opportunities for those not able to participate in STEM jobs.

That said, like many universities, we have seen a massive shift away from study in the humanities to STEM fields because students are feeling the pressure to "train for jobs". I don't like this either, since I do think that Dewey's argument holds up. We (in college) should be focused on educating for knowledge and critical thinking. Not for job readiness.

But I do think that the case for STEM equity is an important part of making students have the ability to choose their opportunities later in their education, and believe that we should approach it as such.

I am not a STEM elitist at all, having been heavily influenced by Sheila Tobias and "They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier", so being a populist about this, I believe we should be thinking about Dewey's writings and others in terms of the opportunity and equity arguments also. Which may lead people like me to at least argue to those seeing education reform as job readiness as a matter of equity and opportunity especially at the transition from middle to high school level.

Hope that sounds coherent after a long car trip yesterday in the lake effect snow to get home to Buffalo from Detroit...where all these issues are front and center in the Rust Belt.


Terrified for our kids

posted by: Louise Wilson on 1/20/2016 10:01 am

... or maybe for ourselves, since they have to support us in our old age :-)
My son went to college as an English major, which he was definitely not suited for. He quit after 2 years, had 2 years of reading no books for pleasure (detox). He has a good job on the west coast, designing and building computer animated educational videos. He goes all over the world installing systems. He says it's not STEM, it's art. Okay. He says his mom told him to find a job he enjoys, regardless of the pay, and he has. He gets paid quite well now, too. And while he was being paid less than a barista, he was still happy with his job. His mom thought that *was* success.
Here's what I learned. In his group of computer animators, none of them have a degree. Then from east coast friends, I learned that none of them have degrees either. Here in the midwest, we're going nuts for our kids to go to college, get some paper to certify them for a job, earn a living. On the Coasts, students are getting hired for jobs with demonstration of skills. Colleges have priced themselves out of the market, both in terns of money and of time. Many smart people have figured out that they can learn things themselves at lower cost, and not be tied in to someone else's 5 to 8 year timetable.
Doctors and vets, dentists and nurses, you're sort of stuck, being regulated and all. My daughter is in that system. But everyone else, if you are not part of the education industry, apparently you are no longer hidebound by it.
STEM is perhaps the most accessible area for self-study. Anyone who wants to learn it, can. That's why elementary and middle school exposure is so important - if you're a high school junior applying to college in STEM and you haven't done anything on your own ( Science Olympiad, Robotics, made your own app, cloned an entire civilization from your left pinkie...) then you are too far behind to be seriously considered. But these young adults can also get hired for real jobs, and get paid while they learn more. They don't need college: the colleges need them! Colleges need to rethink their mission, because the prediction of jobs for the future is not going well.
My 2 cents anyway.

Terrified for our kids

posted by: Howard Dooley on 1/21/2016 9:16 am

I suspect that we all have many examples and anecdotes about our kids or our kids friends or our students going on very successfully without a post-secondary degree or certification. The "college for all" movement has been a big bust, in my opinion, and only created stress and opportunities for failure for so many.

And how many college graduates end up in low-paying service jobs after college - that, at least here in RI, is an unfortunate reality for many.

I do think there needs to be other options - such as a variety of internships or apprenticeships - for those who still need support after high school to get into a good job.

And, of course, if our programs get it right, and we achieve what we promised in our proposals :) and can scale up, then many students will leave high school prepared to take that entry level job and move up confidently. Right?

Career Paths

posted by: Cathy Jones on 1/22/2016 8:32 am

While STEM careers do require highly specialized skills, the mindset that these skills must come from solely a higher education institution is ludicrous! My father had a highly successful career as a licensed professional chief engineer in the shipping industry--without a college degree. Of course, he received specialized training in the navy and took some classes at Calhoun MEBA Engineering School, but his career preparation never included a college degree of any kind. He passed all of the professional engineering licensure tests--something many degreed engineers cannot do! Unfortunately, these paths to engineering are now closed, as a college degree is now a prerequisite for employment. My son was forced to take the college path and struggled with professors who had a theoretical knowledge of the mechanical engineering field, but no practical experience. In an "engines" class, his professor discouraged him from rebuilding a 350 small block engine in favor of a lawn mower engine. When he rebuilt the 350 anyway, the explanation of the process/features seemed to expand the knowledge of the professor (who is teaching whom?). Is it any wonder that our kids drop out of STEM? As an educator, I worry that we are alienating those students who have the greatest propensity to propel our society forward. We must stop teaching from a book. It's time to roll up our sleeves and make every class meaningful for every student!

Right On

posted by: Mary Townsend on 1/20/2016 9:38 pm

Such a great pist! If the "field" could get real about the this topic. Great point of view! Thanks

Application of STEM

posted by: Betty Hall on 1/23/2016 9:11 am

We own and operate a manufacturing company that designs and builds robotic foundry equipment. In the past 5 years, we have hired 4 different people with engineering degrees from respected universities. None of a the 4 have any hands on experience. They are great at theoretical design, but have no practical knowledge. It makes me question what is being taught in engineering programs when a degreed engineer continues to install hydraulic pumps backwards. Perhaps universities need to reconsider the curriculum and move away from the theoretical and give students more opportunity to get their hands dirty applying the theories of design.

Application of STEM

posted by: Rob Rapaport on 1/24/2016 8:27 am

I am a retired industry manager with engineering and science degrees. Points made by earlier posts reinforce the benefits of students participating in industry coops during their college study. These coops allow hands-on engineering training that is not available at the college/university, providing real world experience that pays off to the graduate and the company(s) that hire them.

Great points about internships and coops

posted by: Joseph Gardella on 1/24/2016 12:31 pm

I was going to respond to Betty's comment with the same point that Rob makes,and to note that at the University at Buffalo, SUNY (aka SUNY Buffalo) School of Engineering and Applied Science, junior year industry internships are a requirement. That in itself does not always cure what Betty was finding...but at least students get some real world experience. I feel that higher ed should be listening more to practical field work and internships. I teach service learning courses for my MSP, ISEP, where we have about 100 students each semester working with teachers in the classroom, mostly STEM students but open to any student with a commitment to community. My hope is the practical learning and supporting requirements inform and help them develop an ability to communicate complex STEM ideas in simple terms.

But, our engineering school has lots of faculty who work in computation and modeling...and while facility with math for modeling is important for an engineer, without the practical work that deals with issues that Rob and Betty mention, it's not a complete education...

Application of STEM

posted by: Joseph Reed on 1/25/2016 12:17 pm

College students, who get practical experience in their STEM majors acquire critical learning of their field of study that can only be gotten in the industry where their field of study is essential. For me as a chemistry major, the practice application of chemical technology first, followed by theory in the classroom enhance my learning and sped up a better understanding of the defined basis for the theory that is involved in the chemistry associated with the technology being used. It was my experience working at a chemical company applying different surfactants on the surface of different diameter and porosity polymer-beads and testing their use for various type desired separations in applications in gas chromatography to be used by different company costumers, gave me as a college junior a greater understanding of many chemical theories that were involved in separation science. In was this practical experience that propelled me into a desire to finish the advanced degree.

Science for all

posted by: Brian Drayton on 1/25/2016 7:35 am

This is a fascinating series of exchanges. The comments about the need for education that includes practical knowledge of systems remind me of comments by John King, the late professor of experimental physics at MIT. He was talking with some of us at TERC about his efforts to get more project-based work into the intro courses at MIT, and said that he was seeing more and more students who could solve the legendary 3,000 equations to get a degree, but didn't have the (literal) nuts and bolts skills that are necessary for building experimental apparatus -- and interpreting the results.
The drift in the comments towards college, however, has awakened a long-standing bee in my bonnet, which is how to think of "science for all." It seems to me important that we maintain heterogeneous science classrooms as late in students' learning careers as possible. But to make this workable, the science curriculum needs to be built around important systems in the world (physical, chemical, geological, biological/ecological), explored progressively from the points of view of phenomenology, applied exploration of systemic behaviors, and building on those two blocks, explanatory theories, with a strong emphasis on measurement methods, investigative design, and qualitative and quantitative analysis and representations appropriate to each stage (and with argument and debate at every step!)
. At each level, the grounding in phenomena, makes room for diversity of interests and skills, These elements are present even in such highly theorized documents as the NGSS, but the whole tenor of modern standards documents is such that the less technical levels of understanding are not given their full weight. Thus, our science education still tends to focus on "answer seeking" rather than (as Medawar called it), "question seeking." The result tends to be inherently undemocratic in ways that most of you can describe better than I could. My 2 cents.

post updated by the author 1/25/2016

applicability vs inapplicability of "pure rigorous theory?

posted by: Amy Cohen on 1/26/2016 10:27 am

Many mathematicians and some physicists (think SMSG and PSSC) believe that math and science are best taught in the abstract to widen the range of potential applications. Few applied mathematicians or engineers agree. Most children and even most adults learn by generalizing from fairly concrete experiences and then testing those generalizations (conjectures) against further experience.

The business of putting a mathematical field into a firm axiomatic basis and then deriving as much as possible as efficiently as possible has been termed by Marc Kac the writing of the obituary of the field. A few of us who turn out to be professional mathematicians may learn efficiently by studying those obituaries. But many, even the most abstract and rigorous mathematicians, continue to explore special cases to build their understanding and their intuition for further work.

Since most of us in K-16 teaching are working with students who will not be "pure mathematicians" I suggest that more attention be paid to connecting the nearby medium sized objects of the physical world to the mathematics and science we teach. This will help students engage as students and apply as employees.