Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the commentary are the author’s alone.
I have good and bad news.
The good news? There are more than 5,700,000 jobs available in the United States as you read this — the most jobs available at any time in the history of our country.
The bad news? As of 2012, over half of recent college grads were either unemployed or underemployed, meaning they are working in a job that doesn’t require a college degree.
Let that sink in.
There are more jobs available in our country than ever before, but over half of college grads cannot get them. If that’s not the biggest indictment on our education system, then I don’t know what is.
The skills gap is unquestionably one of the biggest problems facing our country and one that feeds into a sluggish economy. So, why are we in this position and what should we do about it?
How did we get here?
Believe it or not, our education system has largely remained unchanged since the Second Industrial Revolution. In 1892, the fathers of the factory system charged the Committee of Ten to come up with a standardized education system.
Prior to this, education was largely taught in single room classrooms where teachers taught to each student’s particular level. As they built factories across the country, industrial-age leaders like Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie needed workers from New York to California to have the same basic skills.
The Committee of Ten divided students up by age and divided school days by content. It dictated what should be taught over 12 years and defined the first eight years as elementary and the final four years as high school. Sound familiar?
This one-size-fits-all, assembly line-style education system was determined over 120 years ago to create a legion of factory workers. Fast forward to 2017, it’s largely still intact. Yet, students are expected to leave an antiquated system and succeed in a high-speed, technology-driven world.
Education incentivizes the wrong skills
Currently, schools narrowly define “smart” as those good at taking tests, which often consists of last-minute cramming. Studies show people remember about 10 percent of what they memorize — so why exactly are we rewarding those that are good at test taking?
Thus the challenge becomes: How do we enable success for students that are facing the demands of a new economy but are equipped with skills for 19th-century America?
First, we must acknowledge that test taking isn’t a skill that leads to success in the 21st Century.
Students need to be able to collaborate, think critically, communicate their ideas, take calculated risks and think creatively. These are all skills that tests struggle to measure. These are soft skills, which foster the ability to effectively work together.
Second, we need to recognize that if we prevent students from making decisions in school, we cannot expect them to be able to make decisions after they graduate. We must empower our students to make choices, take risks and to even fail.
Without these experiences, students will enter the workforce woefully underprepared. That should be concerning to not only students, parents and employers but anyone that cares about the future of our country.
Fortunately, Kansas City is home to a variety of innovative education models that could serve as an example for the nation. There are several programs, but for the sake of brevity, I’m only going to mention a few.
Programs like Blue Valley’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies push upper-class high school students to collaborate and innovate as they learn. CAPS aims to accelerate students’ knowledge on various careers by using industry-standard tools and mentorship from employers.
The Park Hill School District is also introducing a new approach to learning that aims to cultivate more innovative thinking among its students. The district’s LEAD Innovation Studio will focus on project-, problem- and professional-based learning while also giving students a choice in their learning.
Lastly, middle and high schools can only be part of the solution. If we’re to change middle and high schools’ priorities, higher education must change its criteria to evaluate prospective students so they not only incentivize test-taking skills. One area college — William Jewell — is already changing that. William Jewell is offering $4,000 scholarships to any former CAPS student because the school knows that graduates of the program are set up for success.
There are many pockets of progress in Kansas City and the nation. But unless we want the solution to take decades — while also forfeiting a generation — we must come together as a community to approach this problem.
It will take bold action to change a system that’s half a century past its prime. And I believe that Kansas City can lead the charge.