Our Schools: Bridging the Skills Gap

When kids DO go back to school, what should they expect?

By Winston Fisher and Sly James

Everyone is up in arms about schools reopening this fall—as they should be. At a bare minimum, going to school should not come with threats of bodily harm. But while most of us want schools to open—safely—not as many of us are thinking about the identity crisis facing our public schools.

Today, schools have assumed roles that twentieth century educators never envisioned: nutrition providers, counselors, advocates, therapists. To some, they merely serve as caregivers in lieu of parents with multiple jobs. (That’s the rationale behind sending them back too soon: to get parents back to work.) But when it comes to actual teaching and learning, American schools have not excelled. It’s a problem, but it’s also an opportunity.

One of the main complaints about our current system is that it does not prepare students for jobs that actually exist. Technology, automation, and disruptive change have eliminated a broad swath of “9-to-5” jobs, but many companies are woefully short of qualified applicants for “new economy” jobs. Obviously, there is a widening skills gap that no amount of standardized testing will bridge.

Instead, let’s consider innovations that tend to get lost in the “labor versus management” squabbles that have defined public school policy discussions. For example, in upstate New York’s Fulton and Montgomery counties, local businesses actually got directly involved with local curriculum. Under the program, known as Pathways Through Technology or P-TECH, graduating students would have first dibs on jobs at those companies.

Specific skills development can happen without de-emphasizing core abilities like English, math, or science. More often than not, it’s the combination of critical thinking and practical skill that makes a student the ideal job candidate. Often, it is that very combination of practical and theoretical that inspires and engages students the most.

To do all this well, our schools must also consider lengthening the school day and year, which has been successfully done in countries throughout the world. This does not mean more of the same—more lectures, more testing, more “time served.” To be more effective, a longer school year should be a combination of time at school and time practicing in a real work situation. While it’s true that simply extending time spent in class has improved proficiency in schools across the country, think about how much more opportunity will exist when students are given the chance to learn by doing.

This kind of change will not happen by itself, or by ceding control of our schools to purely private interests. It’s time for Democrats to suggest bold changes to our country’s public education system—ones that actually prepare a new generation for the workforce and provide opportunity for Americans.

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