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Implications for education in a changing world

By Staff | Feb 4, 2010


Educators have always been called upon to design curriculum and programs to teach the skill sets necessary to meet our country’s employment needs. Let’s explore this relationship over the past century and what implications it holds for the future. 

Since the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, the economic development of the United States has been a driving force in the area of education. Early designs of the school calendar were focused on children being able to assist their families in harvesting food during the summer and early fall in an agrarian economy. Schools emphasized essential skills children would need to follow in their parents’ footsteps on successful farms. Delivery was simply the three basic “Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic, using chalk boards, pencils and notebooks. Prior to 1925, few students finished high school but still found that they were well-prepared for the skill sets demanded in the work force. Only the elite had the opportunity to attend college.

Prior to and after World War II, the economic development supporting the war effort moved extensively into an industrial manufacturing base, and so did the need for education that included various vocational education programs and special technical schools. Furthermore, this economic shift brought a demand for students with additional skill sets and began a change in educational offerings, including higher levels of math and science. My father, for example, was a graduate of a technical high school where he learned drafting and surveying. During this period, most students completed high school and the numbers attending college increased. Part of the massive increase in college enrollments was the fact that the GI Bill for World War II veterans opened up new opportunities for higher education. During this same period, more and more agricultural jobs were being taken by immigrants or eliminated by technological advances. Students sought more lucrative jobs in fields other than agriculture. The decrease in the number of farmers in the second half of the 20th century is absolutely staggering. This shift made it harder for high school drop-outs to find good jobs, and a significant gap in income levels between high school and college graduates became apparent. 

Over the past 30 years, much of our economy has shifted from manufacturing to service, technology-based and finance-related industries as manufacturing jobs have increasingly been outsourced to foreign countries. This trend is primarily due to multinational corporations seeking to increase profits by cutting labor costs. The corporate view is that any job that can be broken down into small routines can be outsourced to countries where workers can perform the work for much less pay. This creates a need to retrain and retool U.S. workers to meet the reality of the new workplace.

Today, our economy needs highly trained individuals who can compete in a job market that has gone global. Schools have reacted by putting in place computer technology classes and trying to keep pace with the skill sets needed in our economy.  Technological advances in our society have caused top level research to be pushed into college curriculums, pushing what was college level content into high school curriculums, and high school content into middle school classrooms. 

The needs of our economy today go well beyond the skills that come with a high school diploma and, perhaps, even basic college degrees. In response, many major businesses and industries have put in place their own training programs. Some high schools have instituted academy programs that teach specialized skills. Others have not seen the “handwriting on the wall” and continue to offer a traditional high school education that does not prepare students for a sustainable employment future. In the past 15 years, nearly 65 percent of all new jobs created require a college degree. And the average student entering the workplace in 2009 must be prepared to change jobs and workplaces 16 times before retirement.

What does this mean for our children? Can present and future generations expect that a high school education will meet their needs for employable skills? Will new and different industries settle on Maui if we have not prepared our young people with the skills necessary to work in new jobs that have yet to be created? Clearly, all schools must develop new approaches to learning in order to meet this incredible need. 

Schools like Maui Prep and Seabury Hall are already redefining the skills taught at each grade level, enhancing the integration of higher levels of technology into the classroom and focusing on interdisciplinary and project-based learning. Part of this process comes through an initiative funded by the Hawaii Community Foundation to help schools define and develop ways to teach 21st century skills and redefine ourselves to be Schools of the Future. In this way, we hope to ensure that our students are ready to cope with and sustain themselves in an ever-changing competitive world.