Ted Dintersmith & Tony Wagner, Prepared for Market Watch
Well-intentioned national K-12 education goals are jeopardizing the futures of millions of kids. Our stated goal is making all kids “college and career ready.” The reality, though, is that we’ve turned schools into college prep factories, leaving the vast majority of kids ill-prepared for career or life.
Our society views college as the gateway to the American Dream — something all kids should aspire to. From the words of our presidents to our T-shirts and hats, we equate college attainment with success. The better the college, the better the person. No college degree, and you’re a second-class citizen. Reflecting these biases, college readiness now dominates high-school curriculum, K-12 standards, and standard-of- learning assessments.
But here’s the problem. The content our kids study to become “college ready” is largely useless in careers, or life. We push them to perform tasks in the curriculum to make it easy to rank order them for college placement.
This all-consuming focus leaves little time for learning the competencies needed for career or citizenship. Even worse, the majority of kids who trust our advice to pursue college are getting disappointing outcomes.
The content our kids study to become “college ready” is largely useless in careers, or life.
In our science classes, core concepts get lost in a sea of definitions and formulas. Kids study electricity by memorizing Ohm’s Law (a staple of AP Physics) without understanding the science. Consider the hapless MIT students who, at their college graduation, couldn’t take a lightbulb, wire, and battery and light up the bulb. Huh? What if all kids — not just those in Career/Technical Education — learned electricity by taking apart fuse boxes, helping a master electrician wire a house, and building a wind turbine to produce electricity for the local grid? This learning is valuable to everyone, whether they become master electricians, Ph.D. research scientists, or normal adults coping with home electrical issues.
But hands-on learning doesn’t lend itself to standardized testing, and is viewed by academic elites as a grubby, blue-collar distraction. So Ohm’s Law it is.
High school math revolves around drilling on the low-level procedures (think factoring polynomials, trig identities, integrals by hand) that permeate the SAT and ACT tests. If we relegated these tasks to a smartphone app, students could learn math with real career value, like statistics, data analytics, estimation, math modeling, algorithm development, financial literacy, social media optimization, and computer programming. Our priorities have consequential career opportunity costs for all kids. And it’s tragic when algebra (something few adults ever use) keeps someone from getting their high-school diploma and they end up homeless or in jail.
In English classes, far too much time is spent memorizing the parts of speech, grammar rules, and the terms and techniques for the kinds of “literary analysis” done in college. None of these activities help students to learn to organize their thoughts, write well in a variety of genres, and deliver effective oral presentations. Yet these are the skills that employers tell us are most lacking among young adults.
For much of the last century, college was an affordable path to a good job.
But today’s world is different. For every 100 kids who start college, just 25 get degrees and attractive jobs. Some 45 drop out, and another 30 graduate but end up under- or unemployed, reaching the end of the college rainbow only to find a pot of rejection letters and debt. But our unquestioned embrace of colleges has given them carte blanche to jack up tuition for courses stuck in the Dark Ages. Meanwhile, millions of high-quality jobs in our country go unfilled, as our schools churn out “college ready” kids with no employable skills.
Employers are recognizing the disconnect between college and career readiness. Google, for instance, changed its hiring strategies after Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations, analyzed their data and found no correlation between job performance and an employee’s GPA, SAT’s, or college pedigree. Google now considers an applicant’s ability to collaborate and to perform authentic job-related challenges. Now, they hire many new employees who never went to college.
Our education goals have lost touch with what matters most — helping students develop essential skills, competencies, and character traits. It’s time to reimagine the goals for U.S. education, and hold all schools — from kindergarten through college — accountable for teaching the skills and nurturing the dispositions most needed for learning, work, and citizenship.
Let’s set our overarching goal as producing students who are “life-ready,” and treat colleges as one potential means to this end.
Ted Dintersmith has a Ph.D in engineering from Stanford, was a top-ranked venture capitalist, executive produced the acclaimed film “Most Likely To Succeed,” and went to all 50 states in the last year advocating for education change. Tony Wagner is an Expert In Residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab and a Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute. They are co-authors of “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era.”