America's anachronistic education system

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By Jason Gaulden

We have entered the Age of Agility, an exciting, unsettling time in our nation’s history. Going forward, workers and businesses will have to adapt continuously to rapidly changing circumstances caused by the accelerating adoption of workplace automation and artificial intelligence.

This new age might offer great benefits to individuals and businesses, or it could displace hundreds of thousands, even millions, of workers over the next couple of decades. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates 38 percent of U.S. jobs will be automated by 2030. To put that in context, kids in sixth grade today will be entering the prime of their working lives then.

And despite popular misconceptions, it’s not just jobs on factory floors that are imperiled. Truck drivers, medical technicians, and even lawyers could find their jobs disappearing. White- and blue-collar jobs alike are vulnerable, though lower-paying jobs are likely to vanish first and in greater numbers.

More than at any time in recent history, it’s impossible to know what future employment will look like, in terms of the structure of work, the tasks involved, and the specific expertise required. This would seem to offer great opportunity, if we can prepare ourselves to seize it. How do we address upheaval of such astounding proportions? As Alan Gottlieb and I argue in our new report, Age of Agility: Education Pathways for the Future of Work, it must begin with our education system.

Students exiting the pre-K–12 system will need to be ready for radical societal and workplace changes if they are to have any shot at thriving personally or professionally. This requires an education system that models the virtues of agility—one that is responsive to and prepares students for rapid changes. By and large, however, our schools are failing to prepare them for this emerging reality.

An evolving school of thought promotes scrapping our existing systems and starting over. The basic argument here is that the status quo is so rife with perverse incentives, entrenched special interests, and ideological polarization that even the incremental changes achieved to date have occurred only after protracted political battles. In many other sectors of our high-tech society, change is often transformative and quick. But there is a deeply embedded resistance to agility in American education today, which demonstrates the need for an overhaul, yet simultaneously makes that difficult. This has to change.

To be sure, today’s elementary education, with more experiential learning added to the mix, needs to remain in place because young children need to be fluent readers and writers and acquire at least basic computational skills at an early age. None of the exciting opportunities that need to be available to middle- and high-school-aged students will be possible if they lack those foundational skills. But education of young children needs to be far more effective and engaging if we hope to achieve better than the middling results we’ve settled for over the decades.

One preliminary step school systems could take to prepare students for the future would be to create networks of truly diverse schools. Recent evidence demonstrates that racially and economically integrated, inclusive schools are ideally positioned to help young people develop the capacities they will need to thrive in increasingly diverse workplaces.

Another solution is to create learning opportunities more customized to individual students’ strengths, passions, and progress. Indeed, in isolated pockets throughout the country, practitioners are beginning to provide real-life models of highly personalized learning. Many of these places also break down barriers between seat-time and real-life experience, encouraging and enabling students to work in a variety of environments, with ever-shifting sets of people. This helps prepare children for a world characterized by rapid and perpetual change.

But these are just two of many possible strategies. If we’re willing to stretch our thinking, to step outside obsolete paradigms, then we can enact policies that create conditions that allow substantive change to occur.

So let’s start the serious work required to retool our education system. Every city and state needs to act urgently to convene business leaders, policymakers, and educators who can work together to develop entirely new education and training systems.

To some people, the idea of a highly automated workforce seems like an abstract concept, a time off in the distant future that won’t possibly affect them. They’re wrong. The race against robots has begun, and the Age of Agility is already upon us. There’s no time to waste if we are to provide the real-world preparation our students desire and deserve.

Jason Gaulden is Communications Director at America Succeeds, a national network of business leaders working to improve education policy and practice. He also leads the organization’s Agility Agenda, a campaign to improve the nation’s education-to-employment system. 

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.