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Voices: On Election Day, pondering education's purpose

Peter Huidekoper, Jr., veteran educator turned education consultant, argues schools need to prepare students for life – not just jobs.

Lately we have been told again and again that our educators are not preparing American youth to be efficient workers. Workers. That language is so common among us now that an extraterrestrial might think we had actually lost the Cold War – Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books

Of course it matters who wins tonight, but no matter who our next president is, I intend to ask him and other leaders one question over the next four years. It is no small matter – just the purpose of education.

Each candidate was granted a page in a recent Time, pertaining to the cover story, “Reinventing College.” Like most politicians today, and I fear too many others setting the agenda for our country, both Obama and Romney draw a direct line from education to the economy.

OBAMA: “In the 21st century economy, higher education cannot be a luxury; it is an economic necessity every family should be able to afford….We can give 2 million workers the chance to attend their local community college and arm themselves with the skills that will lead directly to a job.”

ROMNEY: “Our economy is demanding more advanced skills and more varied skills every day. Our higher education system must be responsive to these demands if it is to offer students an attractive return on their investment, prepare them for successful careers, and help America compete in the global marketplace.”

The election has focused on “jobs jobs jobs,” and candidates have outdone themselves to tie everything else (including foreign policy) back to this concern. But what Obama and Romney articulate is becoming the conventional wisdom: that the economy and our ability to compete in the global marketplace ought to be the goal of schools and colleges.

I believe this is foolish and dangerous.

“Tomorrow’s workers are in school today”

This quote by Marlene Seltzer is telling. It is an especially relevant topic this week as Denver will benefit Friday from presentations and discussions led by Jobs for the Future President Marlene Seltzer and Program Director Lili Allen (Hot Lunch, Donnell-Kay Foundation). The good work JFF is doing across the country, especially for at-risk youth and entry-level workers, might encourage similar efforts here in Colorado. I applaud two of JFF’s key goals: to see high school students graduate college ready and to focus on college success for students.

But I have questions for Seltzer. She often speaks “on systemic reforms in secondary and postsecondary education and the ability of the labor market to serve low-income workers, employers, and local and state economies.” I am curious to know where she finds the right balance between these two worlds. How does JFF distinguish between education and training?

An old teacher like me recalls the vocational education programs of the 1970’s and how they tended to limit – rather than expand – the possibilities for too many high school students. We read that JFF’s new Pathways to Prosperity Project in six states aims to ensure “that many more young people complete high school (and) attain a postsecondary credential with currency in the labor market.” Can we be sure that the Prosperity Project is not just old wine in new bottles?

But JFF is surely doing much good, so it is the least of my worries. Bigger forces are altering the balance between education and the economy, so that the classroom becomes subservient to the marketplace.

Consider the quote, “Education is the best economic development tool we have in our toolbox,” by Colorado House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino.

Ferrandino was a co-sponsor of the Skills for Jobs Act (HB 12-1061) signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper last April. It directed “the Department of Labor – which collects data on job openings – to share that information with colleges, vocational schools and workforce training programs. Education News Colorado reported that House Democrats “touted it as part of their economic development package.”

The Bell Policy Center’s Frank Waterous testified for the bill, applauding how responsive it was “because it directly addresses industry’s need to fill positions in occupations and specializations critical to business growth and success. It is also responsive to the post-secondary education and workforce development communities’ desire to provide high-quality training that meets industry requirements.”

A Denver Post article found Metro State President Stephen Jordan to be a supporter, saying “the bill could prompt schools like his to tweak existing programs to better match the job market – or to develop new programs entirely …” Jordan said he envisions adding minors or certificates that prepare students for the niches in their areas of interest that most need workers.

I would never argue that the workplace should have nothing to do with K-12 education. At the same time, leaders in government and business must know that when they speak to educators of our second-, fifth-, or eighth-graders as future workers who must learn certain skills to join the middle class – we feel they’re asking us to redefine the very purpose of education and of why we teach.

(And oh, by the way, does anyone recall the standards movement?)

Training kids for jobs here in Colorado

Over a year ago, Gov. Hickenlooper addressed the first gathering of the Education Leadership Council.

“In education there’s not a lot of mystery about what we need to do. We are not training kids for the jobs that are most likely going to be there for them… How do we begin to address that?”

My answer: do all we can to remember that a good education is not about training kids for those jobs. Two different matters. I doubt that, when Hickenlooper was himself a student, his teachers thought they were training him to be geologist-brewmaster-restaurant owner-philanthropist-mayor-governor! His example reminds us – we cannot predict what jobs will be there, or the jobs that we create for ourselves. All the more reason not to train for jobs, but to educate for life.

This is not the space to make the counterargument for the liberal arts. I simply offer a concise statement from St. John’s College, where I earned my master’s degree. The Great Books Program – by many standards, the most impractical degree imaginable. Not to me.

The best preparation for the workforce of tomorrow, for the jobs that have yet to be created, is a liberal education – the kind of education most especially found at the small residential liberal arts colleges across the country…. Graduates of the nation’s many fine liberal arts institutions are prepared not only for a diverse range of careers but for all of life’s challenges and opportunities… This education provides a fitting foundation for all pursuits in life. It is of life-long value.

In less highfalutin language, as we celebrate Election Day – civics education anyone?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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