Much has been written about the failures of the American education system—failures that have become ever clearer in the wake of the recent economic downturn. And while the problems are obvious, the solutions are far less so. It doesn’t help that, at first glance, the proposed answers sometimes appear to be in conflict. We’re told over and over again that only education can solve our long-term economic problems— that’s why we find ourselves drowning in student loan debt. But then we read reports like that from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which states that just one out of five jobs today requires a bachelor’s degree or higher. So what is all this education for, anyway?
There’s no question about the value of the high-level critical thinking skills forged at a four-year university. But it’s also clear that our problems are greater than any one-size-fits-all solution. A traditional college education remains the best path forward for some; for others, it might be a trade school, apprenticeship or skills certificate. Having fallen out of favor in the past, the value of vocational education and career/technical skills is again being recognized, which is important in the push to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., as well as other industries in which a skills mismatch has caused workforce scarcities.
In this issue, Peoria Academy principal Sean Fitts gets to the heart of the problem while explaining the emerging 21st century learning model, which refocuses the classroom around collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and imagination. These are exactly the skills so in demand by today’s employers, yet “every aspect of school design is currently geared toward the 20th century,” he says. Even today, many of the features we take for granted about our educational system can be traced back to a committee established in 1892! Twelve years into the 21st century, it’s long past time to catch up.
The system went wrong, says Fitts, because “it was based on standardization, and not on individual student needs.” And so, as we try to patch up this ailing dinosaur, we are trying a little bit of everything. From charter schools to “flipped learning,” there is no shortage of ideas for reform, as Jack Gilligan points out. Yet, “the inertia of the system is like trying to run in wet cement.”
Successful reform, concludes Gilligan, will depend on local implementation. “When local communities organize themselves to include all the stakeholders, change can happen rapidly.” And that’s what we’re seeing with the success of the Quest Charter Academy. What seems to be an array of out-of-the-box experimentation may be the only way to discover what actually works. And what works for one, may not work for another.
In any case, no matter what your job title is or what industry you’re in, continuous skills improvement is an absolute necessity, and that only comes with education and training. Adaptability is critical—not just for the system, but also for the individual. Education is no longer something you complete; it’s a permanent state of mind. iBi