Education Reform’s Doomsday Clock

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Once I was old enough and my parents let me, I watched The Terminator, director James Cameron’s 1984 classic.

A badass solider from 2029, Kyle Reese, travels back in time to 1984 to stop Skynet—an artificial intelligence system, from becoming self aware and destroying the entire planet. To do this, Reese must stop a “terminator,” a near-invincible cybernetic killing-machine, famously played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, while also saving the lives of future resistance leader Sarah Connor and her unborn child.

If you follow the now-famous franchise (foregoing the last two dreadful installments), its suspense correlates with the exact date and time that Skynet becomes self-aware: August 29, 1997, 2:14 a.m. EST.

Of course, only an absolute nincompoop would believe in the idea of Skynet and robotic humanoid assassins. I am considerably more likely to believe a time traveler visiting us today, ranting and raving about failing to prevent the education reform doomsday clock from striking midnight.

The warning signs are already here. Just look at youth unemployment. Center for American Progress reporter Sarah Ayres recently wrote a well-reported but highly disturbing article, “The High Cost of Youth Unemployment.”

Nearly everyone has struggled in the wake of the Great Recession, but young Americans have suffered the most. While others have slowly returned to work, the unemployment rate for Americans ages 16–24 stands at 16.2 percent, more than double the national rate of unemployment. And even when this group eventually starts earning a paycheck, the impact of their unemployment will follow them for years.

It’s no wonder that more and more students are questioning the value of what they are being taught—especially when now, more than ever, education holds no guarantee for gainful employment.

All the while, the traditional education system continues to place heavy emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests, all so that students can apply to ridiculously expensive colleges and universities.

As reporter Derek Thompson points out in a recent Atlantic article, “A Case for College,” “those who graduate…are more likely to have a job, more likely to earn a higher wage, and more likely to have the skills and experience that employers go to the labor market to buy.”

But Thompson doesn’t touch upon the soaring cost of higher education, which will continue to contribute to America’s growing socioeconomic polarization. I am also aghast at the average student loan debt, which according to reporter Blake Ellis of CNNMoney, reached nearly $27,000 in 2011.

“Two-thirds of the class of 2011 held student loans upon graduation, and the average borrower owed $26,600, according to a report from the Institute for College Access & Success’s Project on Student Debt,” Ellis writes. “That’s up 5% from 2010 and is the highest level of debt in the seven years the report has been published.”

Something has to change, and with notion in mind, several months ago, I read Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.

“Increasingly in the twenty-first century, what you know is far less important than what you can do with what you know,” Wagner writes. “The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today. All successful innovators have mastered the ability to learn on their own ‘in the moment’ and then apply that knowledge in new ways.”

My student, Preston Michelson, ‘13 recently played for me an enlightening video, “Shift Happens,” posted by Karl Fisch, who runs his own education blog, The Fischbowl, and teaches at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado. Fisch does an incredible job, showing viewers why American teachers need to radically rethink the education system.

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet,” the video makes clear.

I begin to think that Wagner himself is a time traveler, returning to now to warn us of what we need to do to prevent calamity. In fact, he stops just shy of providing an exact prescription for what teachers need to do to help students succeed in the world of tomorrow.

I reach out to Wagner to ask him about this issue:

“I don’t think there’s a hard cutoff date in terms of failing to transform our education system,” Wagner says. I think if we do fail in that regard that we will just see a slow economic decline, growing underemployment and more and more kids who are disaffected or angry. I think that won’t happen suddenly. I think it will happen more gradually.”

I take some solace in the prediction that our education system won’t suddenly explode, or implode—whatever the case may be. But I also ask Wagner how we should train students for the jobs of tomorrow that don’t yet exist:

“I don’t think we train them for jobs,” Wagner says. “I think we give them sets of skills that enable them to create new opportunities or to pursue areas of interest. I think intrinsic motivation, grit, as well as the skills that I’ve written about in The Global Achievement Gap—willingness to take risks, to make mistakes and learn from them.”

Wagner tells me that he has seen lots of change in the last decade or so, and that there is “a lot of innovation at the margins.”  But to see broader adaptation, he says, “we’re going to have to redefine what it means to be an educated adult in the 21st century.”

Interview transcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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