01 April 2008

Growing the Wrong Skills the Wrong Way?

This morning, I found an article from last week (through Boortz’s website) in which AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson says, "We're having trouble finding the numbers that we need with the skills that are required to do these jobs.”

And while Mr. Stephenson says, "We're able to do new product engineering in Bangalore as easily as we're able to do it in Austin, Texas," not all of the jobs his company has trouble filling are necessarily high-tech engineering jobs. According to the article, “many international companies have ‘outsourced’ technical and customer support workers.”

My question is, then, what skills need to be taught locally (read: in the US) so that our children can enjoy the benefits of relatively secure jobs? And really, I’m not being sarcastic here. There is absolutely nothing wrong – indeed there’s a lot right – with jobs involving technical support, help desk services, and the like. Sure they aren’t glamorous by any stretch of the imagination, but most jobs aren’t anyway.

The skills that might want to be pushed more are simple: reading comprehension, writing with clarity and purpose (and the slew of skills that undergird writing), math performance sans calculator, and proper, courteous behavior. These really aren’t too much to ask from a student who has 12 years of opportunity to achieve them.

What is not needed in great quantity is what I call “identity education”, which begs a student to define who they are, how they feel, what is important to them, etc. This type of education runs counter to the idea that students must learn (as they must) a certain foundation of knowledge. It certainly aims counter to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And what’s more, there’s not a lot of marketability in “identity education” except for marketing the idea to others.

What is needed (I think Mr. Stephenson would agree here) are high school graduates who are trainable (they can comprehend spoken and written material), who can communicate (with numbers and words without constant supervision), and who have a developed – even somewhat minimally – sense of self accountability. And yet, numbers are published today showing that “three out of 10 US public school students do not graduate from high school, and major city school districts only graduate one out of two students, according to a study released [1 April 2008].” Somewhere, there is a serious disconnect – or rather, there are serious disconnects.

At some point, there will be a realization that the paradigm of education which is adhered to like toxic glue is damaging our country. I don’t pretend to have the answers; indeed, I do not believe there is one answer. So much of education today is “one size fits all” thanks to over-inflated notions of equality. For a very recent review of some “outside the box” approaches of how to run schools – individual schools – here’s an article from the Hoover Institute on how three different charter school types have brought about meaningful change. It is a bit of a read, but it is quite enlightening. And guess what? Each school’s approach is different! Now there’s an idea: meaningful diversity.

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