The Challenges We Face

The Challenges We Face

Today, founder Ron Slee continues our series on Lifelong Learning with this blog post: The Challenges We Face. Education should lead to learning, shouldn’t it?

You are seeing it everywhere these days. The progress that has been made in education has not been very good. Through the pandemic and all the arguments about going to school or going virtual with reading, writing and arithmetic measures are all pointing out that things are not very good.

The New York Times reporting on September 1st, 2022 that the performance of 9-year-olds in math and reading dropped to the levels from two decades ago. For the first time since the National Assessment of Educational Progress test began tracking student achievement in the 1970s, 9-year-olds lost ground in math, and scores in reading fell by the largest margin in more than 30 years.

What makes this more troublesome is that “Student test scores, even starting in first, second and third grad, are really quite predictive of their success later in school, and their educational trajectories overall” said Susanna Loeb, the director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which focuses on educational inequality. This holds serious implications for our society. Over the past decade or so, student scores had leveled off rather than gained, while gaps widened between low-and high-performing students.

One last comment comes from Dr. Ho, a professor of education at Harvard and an expert on education testing. He tells the story of a “decade of progress” followed by a “decade of inequality.”  He continues “Now we have our work cut out for us.” There are people now calling for a “Marshall Plan” for education. Janice K. Jackson, who led the Chicago Public Schools until last year and is currently a board member of Chiefs for Change. She is saying “no more of the arguments, and the back and forth and the vitriol and the finger pointing. Everybody should be treating this like the crisis it is.”

For some time, the world looked to America for ideas and concepts in educational success. That is no longer true, if it ever was. From the 1930’s. when the President of Harvard dramatically increased the learning options, from the basic “Science and English curriculum,” and dramatically increased the monies coming into the University, we have seen a decline in the University creation of “work ready” graduates for our society. Today we have over 11,000,000 open jobs in the USA. Companies are looking to hire 11,000,000 people. Although answering the question of how many people are unemployed is tricky to answer, Heather Long published a report in February in 2021 that provided the official number of unemployed people in the United States as 10.1 million. This from a report the Labor Department puts out every Friday. But there are other numbers to consider. Unemployment payments have been going out regularly to 20 million people. Perhaps these people are unemployable. By Colleague Ed Gordon continues to tell me that by 2030 50% of the American Workforce will not have the skills required to be employed. If he is correct, we as a society are in a very serious situation. The Challenge is Real.   

In 1965 the federal government began guaranteeing student loans provided by banks and non-profit lenders. They created a program that is now called the Federal Family Education Loan program. The American public has been bombarded for many decades that the path to success in the US is to have a University Degree. The message was very successful. In 1980 there were 3,231 higher education institutions in the United States. By 2016, that number increased by more than a third to 4,350 (how government guaranteed student loans killed the American Dream for Millions by Daniel Kowalski). According to Forbes, the average price of tuition has increased eight times faster than wages since the 1980s. In 2018 the Federal Reserve estimated that there was $1.5 trillion in unpaid student debt.

If after reading this far you don’t sense a problem then I have done a very poor job of communicating.

Career and Technical Education as we now know it has its roots in the founding of the United States. There were a series of stages through which learning progressed; The Awakening (1776–1826) which provide a right to a free public education, primarily to boys. Independent Action (1826–1876) when public education joined with the workforce to provide a continuous stream of workers for different jobs. The Vocational Education Age (1876-1936) the first manual training school, established in St Louis, Missouri, in 1879. Coming of Age (1926-1976) the first mass acceptance of career and technical training. Technical Schools are thought to produce job ready skills for work that is demand. They don’t cost nearly as much as university.

Mike Rowe says “We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist. That’s nuts.” Since 1980, the cost of going to college has risen by 260%. If you attend a technical college, then the cost of your entire education is the equivalent of one year at another institution. Today only 19% of college enrollees can earn their degree in four years or less. (Trade School vs College: The Big Pros and Cons for each June 24 2019 by Louise Gaille). Further, there are several trade schools operating right now in the US which offer vocational opportunities online.

An article was written in the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness by Jeremy Monk in March of 2018. He starts the article recounting an information session at a local technical and career education center. He tells us he attended a school known for its academic rigor and high ranking. Most students laughed at the idea of attending a vocational school. A school counsellor told those going to the information session the following story.

You are rushed to the hospital one evening and told you need emergency surgery for a rare infection. The only doctor who knows how to perform this surgery is at his country house and it will take an hour for him to get to the hospital. The doctor gets in his fancy car and starts the trip. Twenty minutes into the trip something happens to his engine and his car stalls on a rural highway. The doctor calls a local mechanic who rushes over, and in a few minutes diagnoses the problem and fixes the problem. The doctor makes it to the hospital and performs the surgery successfully. The school counsellor then asks the question.

Who do you thank – The Doctor or the Mechanic?

While University education has been promoted at most levels of society career, vocational and technical education has become increasingly stigmatized. Finding for technical education programs have decreased and vocational credit offered in high schools have dropped. Career, Vocational and Technical Education has been portrayed as a Plan B, a “Silver” medal compared to a university education. Recent data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed that nearly 44 percent of recent college graduates were employed in jobs not requiring university degrees in 2016.

Germany continues to show us how to proceed. They have a greater percentage of young people opting for non-university post-secondary education. There is also much greater respect for these students. Similar social and education programs are dominant in Scandinavia. In Finland, which is often referenced as the jewel of all national education systems nearly 45% of students choose a technical path.   

The evidence is clear. The facts are compelling. Society is showing this in how the “white” collar and “blue” collar job status is viewed. This has created a social hierarchy. It isolates people and further divides us. We face some very serious challenges. Don’t forget the doctor would still be on the side of the road waiting if it had not been for the mechanic. 

The Time is Now.

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