Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The real purpose of K-12 education

We have to realize that K-12 education should be about preparing students for life, not university, and that some of the greatest, most rewarding career opportunities out there can be found in the vast vocational/trades/technical college realm.

Aaron S. Robertson

Recently, I finished reading a book called, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, written by Leonard Sax and published in 2016.

Dr. Sax is both a medical doctor and a Ph.D. psychologist, and the inspiration for a lot of his writing comes directly from both his office visits with children and families, and from his numerous talks and tours at schools and in communities across the country and even the world. He currently has four published books out, one of them in a second edition. I recently ordered his Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls (2011) from Amazon, and just started reading it yesterday.

In the coming days and weeks, I plan on writing a number of posts here tied to The Collapse of Parenting. I'm spending a lot of time with the book, going back to revisit certain parts and really digging deep and reflecting on what I've been observing and experiencing in my short time in education so far. It's a wonderful read, and I highly recommend it to parents, expecting parents, those working in education (both K-12 and college level), and even employers and recruiters, who can certainly benefit from the rich insights and data the book offers on the younger generations coming up in the workforce.

To follow along with these specific posts, I've created the tag/label, The Collapse of Parenting. Click that link, and you'll be taken to all of the posts.

For this first post, I'd like to discuss Dr. Sax's thoughts on what he sees as the real purpose of K-12 education. Many Americans today, it seems, have this idea that K-12 education is designed to (or should be designed to) prepare students for admission into top colleges. It's an idea that, I can personally attest to from both my experiences as a high school student in the late 1990s and as someone working in K-12 education today, is arguably misguided, to say the very least. Actually, it's a disservice that is quite toxic. It deprives all individual students by downplaying or even outright hiding other opportunities, and it deprives our economy and society of needed talents and resources. We collectively depend on a rich diversity of skills, talents, interests, experiences, and specializations in order to produce the goods, services, ideas, and knowledge that move us forward.

Benefits of learning a trade

Now, to the credit of many U.S. school districts and experts in the world of education today, the conversation and landscape is already in the process of changing. The Collapse of Parenting came out at the very beginning of 2016, and since that time, many districts have begun moving away from presenting a college-only future to students. This was actually the basis for a previous post I wrote a little more than a year ago, Manufacturing and the trades in schools, in which I heralded what I see as the return of these skill sets and opportunities in schools and in the broader dialogue.

Nonetheless, we still have a very long way to go. I don't think it's anyone's fault, in particular. This college-only philosophy simply started off by slowly creeping into education and societal thought years ago already, and, before we know it, just about everyone is buying into it - parents, students, teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, the media, pop culture, savvy marketers, and so on. It took off to the point where it has dominated a good swath of K-12 education for quite a few years now, and it's difficult to get out from under its stranglehold.

Let's explore further. There's actually a two-pronged discussion taking place here, with both parts very much intertwined. First, we'll explore the misconception that the mission of K-12 education is to prepare students for college (college, in this context, is generally understood to be the four-year university path), and then, tying into that belief, we'll look at the misconception that vocational training/work in the trades/technical college education is somehow inferior to the university track.

To begin, Dr. Sax, in my opinion, hits it right on the head with this statement when he observes that:
At some level, sometimes subconsciously, many Americans – both parents and students – have accepted the idea that a primary purpose of K-12 schooling, maybe even the primary purpose, is to get accepted into a selective college and to prepare for college. That’s a mistake. The primary purpose of education should be to prepare for life, not for more school. And many of the skills needed to succeed in life are different from the skills needed for admission to a top college. (Sax, 2016, p. 189)
And just what are those skills needed to succeed in life? Well, based on my years in business and industry before moving to education as my primary field, I would certainly say that they include the abilities to effectively read, write, and communicate. Math for everyday life and work is a must. By that, I mean the ability to perform old-fashioned multiplication, addition, subtraction, division, and percentages with relative ease in one's head. The ability to synthesize information, reflect, and think critically. Knowing how to identify quality sources when conducting research of any kind. Understanding one's rights and responsibilities as a citizen, and this is where paying attention in social studies classes comes in. Definitely personal finance. The ability to face, understand, and accept failure as a part of life and work. And teamwork, getting along with others, playing fair, sharing, personal responsibility - essentially, Fulghum's Rules, which were instilled in us in kindergarten some 30-35 years ago, and which Dr. Sax points out have largely been replaced with, "...teaching diphthongs rather than teaching respect, courtesy, and manners" (Sax, 2016, p. 50). By contrast, kindergarten students in Finland still spend their school days playing, having fun, and learning how to get along, and, somehow, it's not preventing them from thriving academically as older students.       

Dr. Sax calls this whole college-only approach buying into "the middle-class script." He writes:
When I visit schools, I often meet with students, in groups both large and small. When I meet with middle or high school students, I sometimes engage them in semi-Socratic back-and-forth questioning. I pose questions and call on students who raise their hands. What’s the point of school? I ask. Why bother? To get into a good college – that’s the answer I most often hear from American high school students. So what’s the purpose of college? I ask. To get a good job, to earn a living, the students answer. This dialogue is the basis for what I have come to call “the middle-class script.” The script reads as follows:

1. Work hard in school so you can get into a good college.
2. Get into a good college so you can get a good job.
3. Get a good job and you will make a good living and have a good life.

There are several problems with this script. The first problem is that every line in it is false.

1. Working hard in school is no guarantee of admission to a top college. We all know stories of kids who worked hard, earned good grades, and didn’t get into any of their top choices.
2. Getting into a good college is no guarantee of a good job. The media and the blogosphere are full of stories of young people who have earned bachelor’s degrees from Princeton and Harvard and who are now waiting tables or simply unemployed.
3. Getting a good job is no guarantee of having a good life. (Sax, 2016, pp. 187-188)
He goes on to explain this last point by describing colleagues in the medical field as a prime example:
I have seen some such adults among my own physician colleagues. This man may be regarded as a successful surgeon; he may earn $600,000 a year; but he's miserable. He's unhappy because he is working 80 hours a week at a job he has come to loathe. If you are working 80 hours a week at a job which shrivels your soul, then you are a slave. I don't care whether you are earning $600,000 a year or more. Life is precious. Each minute is a priceless gift. No amount of money can reclaim lost time. If you are wasting your time on work you detest, you may come to feel resentful about the time you are losing. If you are a physician, you may come to resent your patients. I have learned to recognize such physicians, and I try to steer my patients away from them. (Sax, 2016, p. 190)
And now, here's where that tie-in to frowning upon vocational/trades/technical college training and education comes in. Dr. Sax explains how high school students expressing an interest in wanting to become mechanics are viewed in Germany and Switzerland compared to their peers here in the United States. He notes:
I find that parents in the United States, more than in any other country, have bought into the middle-class script. In Germany and Switzerland, for example, there is no shame if a 15-year-old chooses to train to become an auto mechanic rather than embarking on the university track. And that’s true even if both parents are university professors. Mechanics in those countries are respected and they earn good money.

Mechanics can earn good money in the United States as well, but there is a stigma, a lack of respect, attached to 'blue-collar' work in the United States today, which is utterly lacking in Mitteleuropa. In the United States, it is hard to imagine the child of two professors choosing to go straight into 'vocational training' to be a mechanic unless that child has been diagnosed with some sort of learning disability. Most Americans today regard 'vocational training' as a low-prestige option for below-average-IQ kids or for kids with learning disabilities. (Sax, 2016, pp. 188-189)
The four-year university path isn't for everyone, nor should it ever be. It's merely one of many post-high school avenues in which to try to find meaningful work, personal fulfillment, and the tools and resources to build a decent quality of life. And like any path in life and career, we must accept that, at the end of the day, there are no guarantees of anything. Things like meaningful work, personal fulfillment, happiness, and success, are all in the eyes of the beholder. They must come from within, because they are different for everyone. You may find them easily, or you may never fully discover them. They may last for many years, or they may quickly come and go. What's special and fulfilling today may become an ongoing burden tomorrow, as we see in the case of the $600,000-per-year surgeon. You may have to reinvent - or rediscover - yourself every so often.

“Most Americans today regard 'vocational training' as a low-prestige option for below-average-IQ kids or for kids with learning disabilities.” - Dr. Leonard Sax

As many of my regular readers here know, I'm a Ph.D. student. And as I reflect in a previous post, Embracing lifelong learning,
While it's true that this is the highest level of academic degree that can be attained, it's certainly not the be-all-end-all of learning. It doesn't make me a genius. It doesn't give me everything I'll ever need to know. All it demonstrates is that I can conduct original scientific research. Big deal. Far more people out there know a heck of a lot more than I do and are far more successful than I am without that formal education. And I sincerely hope that you become one of them.
As someone who has climbed the degree ladder of the university track, I often encourage high school students to explore careers in the trades and other opportunities in the vocational and technical college realm. There are a ton of them now - culinary arts and hospitality management, dental hygienist, real estate and property management, graphic design, early childhood education, Web and digital media design, information technology (IT), criminal justice and law enforcement, nursing, paramedic and EMT, fire protection, truck driving, marketing and sales, funeral service, human resources (HR), cosmetology, aviation. We can go on and on. There are so many awesome opportunities today in this vast realm, and many vocational and technical college scholarships go unfilled or with very little competition, which makes for great odds for someone who's seriously interested in exploring and putting in the work. There are plenty of traditional apprenticeship and other on-the-job-training opportunities out there, as well.

I share with high school and college students that if the vocational/trades/technical college programs were held in higher regard, discussed more, and presented as viable options when I was in high school (I graduated in 2001), then, who knows, my life's work and overall course may have been altered quite radically from what it is today. As I share in that previous post I wrote just over a year ago, Manufacturing and the trades in schools:
I graduated high school in 2001. While I was in high school in the late 1990s, manufacturing in the United States was undergoing a serious exodus. Perhaps the hardest hit areas were in the Midwest, where manufacturing was a way of life, providing many families with a stable, comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. Many of the men in my family, along with many of our family friends, were skilled machinists. And many of them lost their jobs in the late 90s, including my father, an uncle, and even my mother, who did assembly work. Many plants during this time closed up shop and moved down to Mexico, where labor and other resources were much cheaper.

At the time, the message to those of us in high school was, "Avoid manufacturing. It's dead in this country. There's no future in it. Go to college." The four-year university was all the talk. That was the path we were all encouraged - even outright steered toward - to pursue. Many students from my generation, including myself, were the first ones in our families to go to university. Pursuing a university education, we were told, would lead to a great, comfortable living, and one that's clean - away from the oily, dirty, dim-lit environment often associated with machining and factory work back then, however real or merely perceived.

Simultaneously, the other trades, along with technical colleges and vocational schools, were largely downplayed as post-high school options, as well. These jobs and paths just weren't really talked about much, it seemed, and when they were, they were often cast in the same light as the then-disappearing jobs in the manufacturing realm - grimy, labor-intensive, whatever the opposite of the pristine, well-lit, promising, and even futuristic jobs being churned out by the white-collar world. The university, we were told by our parents, teachers, guidance counselors, the media, and broader society, was the way of the future. Many schools were scaling back or outright eliminating shop and tech ed programs, or they were on their way to doing so in subsequent years.
In closing, while progress is being made to move away from the longstanding misconceptions that K-12 education's role is to (or should be to) prepare students for university and that somehow, any other post-secondary opportunities are inferior by comparison, much work remains. Such beliefs are doing a great disservice to both individual students and to the broader society and economy to which we all belong. Our thinking must change. We must rip up this "middle-class script" and write a new one in its place.

I'll leave you with this final thought, also from Manufacturing and the trades in schools:
Want the best of both worlds? I typically advise students these days to take a serious look at a technical college or vocational school education. Learn a provable hard skill or trade first, something that you're really going to enjoy. Enter the workforce with those skills and gain some practical on-the-job experience for a while. And then consider going for the bachelor's and perhaps even beyond, if that's something you'd like to do. Maybe get a bachelor's in a business/management/leadership program. Now, you have two good things going for you - first, you have that concrete, verifiable skill set. And you'll also have that bigger-picture education that can help you set the stage for a promotion into management or even off on your own as a business owner yourself some day.

No comments:

Post a Comment