Opinion: Public Education Requires Renewed Focus On Skills-Based Learning

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Originally published in The Daily Caller – January 11, 2019

America’s confidence in its public schools has dropped significantly in the past half-century. A mere 29 percent of Gallup survey participants expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools, down from 58 percent the first time the question was asked in 1973. However, unlike the many other institutions that saw a similar decline over the years, no single event or scandal can be blamed for public schools’ waning confidence. Perhaps through their own experience, or that of their kids, people have simply stopped believing that traditional public schools are working. 

So what can we do to fix it? We have to start by asking what the role of K-12 education should be, what subjects we teach and how those courses should be taught. 

America’s early public-school system limited who could access its services, but for those who were fortunate enough to attend, it was spectacularly successful in creating a citizenry of literate 19th-century yeoman with the skills needed to read a ballot, measure a fence, or avoid getting cheated by the other party at the market.

Children also learned massive amounts of material needed to succeed in the adult world outside of the classroom. The traditional school calendar was structured to allow kids to help bring in the harvest, skills they’d eventually need after taking over the family farm. When something broke, they helped fix it. If it ran away, they’d find it. “The three R’s” — reading, writing and arithmetic — were seen as part of a well-rounded education, but not its sole focus. 

The seeds for the current system’s demise were planted, as is so often the case, in an attempt at reform. In 1892, the Committee of Ten was convened by the National Education Association to standardize American high school education. The group’s focus was on preparing students for college and the explicit recommendation was to see “every subject … taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil.”

This single decision set the nation on a path that eventually culminated with the idea that going to college was not just a good choice for some students, but a necessary, right choice for all students. As a result, K-12 school systems stopped thinking that their job was to prepare students to succeed immediately after graduation – that was now higher education’s job. 

Change is long overdue. The world is facing a critical shortage of workers with the skills and training needed to fill available jobs. So-called “new collar” jobs – such as software engineers, security analysts and web developers – require a high school diploma and high-level training and skills, but not necessarily a four-year degree. Of the 55 million U.S. job openings expected through 2020, 36 million won’t require a bachelor’s degree. What they will require, however, is specialized skills, technical training and career readiness training that high schools can and should provide.  

But not all students see success in the typical classroom setting. That’s why project-based learning is a far superior approach for children looking to learn new skills. With project-based learning, students solve realistic problems similar to what they will face after graduation. Teachers aren’t merely lecturers, but coaches and facilitators of students who control their own learning experience. The old competition-based framework of grading curves and high-stakes tests is replaced with collaboration, mirroring the teamwork required to succeed in the modern workplace.

Project-based learning gives students a chance to learn in the ways their great-great-grandparents did decades ago, before society made the declaration that the only learning that matters happens inside a classroom. A focus on rigor and realistic projects — often provided by industry partners — assures students in these settings learn as much, if not more, than they would in a traditional classroom environment. 

As with many things in education, we know what works. Unfortunately, resistance to change comes both from the system as well as many parents, who believe they turned out just fine and that school should continue the way they experienced it. However, our education system no longer meets the needs of today. Now is the time to start building a system that will work today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future; and sometimes, looking to the future starts with understanding the past. 

Dr. Patrick Michel is vice president of Career Readiness Program Design for K12, a program that provides a personalized, online education experience. He is a 30-year veteran of public education as a teacher, principal and superintendent.

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