“That Used to Be Us: Part II: The Education Challenge”

Part II: The Education Challenge

Teachers who are overwhelmed should try to make time to read, at the very least, this section of the book.

The global market and the IT revolution discussed in Part I means big changes for education. In the global marketplace, we’re familiar with low wage, low skill workers. What we need to contend with now is low wage, high skill workers. America’s past success was “based on real innovation, real education, real research, real industries, real markets, and real growth—but the playing field was also tilted in our direction. Now we have to try to sustain all those good things without all those structural advantages.” (This is the idea behind The World is Flat, by the way.) If you don’t believe this, read this book for lots of flat world examples—examples, in fact, of how much has changed since The World is Flat was published. Even top level researchers and Ph.D.s can work for a US company from their home countries halfway across the world.

The IT revolution means that our students are going to have to be very diverse thinkers. The authors suggest that they will have to combine “the skills of MIT, MTV, and Madison Avenue.” Certainly, they will have to have a solid base of knowledge in several areas and will need to be creative thinkers and imaginers as well. (Note: one of the best books I’ve read which shows that those coming into adulthood are entering a world of work that is utterly different from that experienced by their parents is A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. It was recommended to me by a colleague at COHS. I reviewed it here. It warns that what parents and teachers are telling kids about the world of work (“Be an accountant! A lawyer! A computer programmer!”) is probably wrong.

The IT revolution also means that ‘people skills’ are also going to matter more than ever. With technology available to everyone, the ‘human touch’ is what will set people apart.

To show that traditional, low skill or manufacturing jobs will not return, Friedman and Mandelbaum site examples, showing that after recessions, workers laid off are not all rehired because firms restructure their operations. More and more, the labor market will reward those with college degrees, a trend called ‘employment polarization.’ The IT revolution makes well-educated people more productive in a global market; it also makes less-educated people “less employable.”

There are four types of jobs in today’s labor market:

Creative creators: people doing “nonroutine work in a . . .nonroutine way.”

Routine creators: people doing nonroutine work in a routine way

Creative servers: nonroutine low-skilled workers doing work in an inspired way

Routine servers: people who do routine serving work in a routine way

No matter what their skill level or educational background, workers who do things in a routine way are in trouble. Employers say that they are looking for ‘presence’ in their employees (engaged and paying attention). The authors point to their interviews with major employers/industry leaders as proof. Even the lowliest job will require a critical thinker, but critical thinking will be only the most basic skill. Employees must be able to innovate as well as collaborate well with others—others who may be located far away. Lots of work will migrate to a wiki format: “up-to-date, self-correcting, adaptable in real time.” New jobs like ‘chief innovation officer’ are on the way. (Again, I recommend Daniel Pink for more on this idea.)

Despite the ability to move jobs overseas, America will need to keep some manufacturing in the country or risk losing touch with a source of innovation, “working directly with a product and figuring out how to improve it.” In this discussion, the authors coin ‘Carlson’s Law’: “Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb. Innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart.”

The authors move into a discussion of how the country should treat education. They quote Michelle Rhee (former chancellor Washington, D.C. school system, controversial in educational circles): “We treat education as a social issue. And I’ll tell you what happens with social issues: When the budget crunch comes, they get swept under the rug, they get pushed aside. We have to start treating education as an economic issue.”

I think this is the point in the book where the educator’s heart starts palpitating. Basically, this discussion can be summed up in the authors’ insistence that “maintaining the American dream will require learning, working, producing, relearning, and innovating twice as hard, twice as fast, twice as often, and twice as much.”

The argument shifts to whether our students really are competitive in a worldwide workplace. The authors say they aren’t, that our top students and schools are not as good as those in other countries, and that poverty is not the issue. They point to a study entitled “The Myths and Realities about International Comparisons” as evidence. (I’ve read of studies that show that poverty is the real issue, and that our top students do quite well on a world platform. I will provide some links in the next installment of this review along with links on the direction education is moving. However, I will note now that even within this argument, the authors do a few twists. They say that studies from other countries that do well are not from a small part of the population, and then go on later to mention that China’s scores are derived entirely from Shanghai. Can’t be both, boys.)

Another educational area that needs work is our system of vocational training as some future jobs will require a high-level vocational education.

Folks both inside and outside of education must be willing to sacrifice in order for education to have what it needs: “better teachers and principals; parents who are more involved in and demanding of their children’s education; politicians who push to raise educational standards . . .; neighbors who are ready to invest in schools even though their children do not attend them; business leaders committed to raising educational standards in their communities; and . . .students who come to school prepared to learn, not to text.”

A part of this argument that will interest all teachers is that the authors assert that in the US, we don’t do much to develop or reward excellent teaching. We should, and to this end, the authors recommend 50% of teacher and principal evaluation be based on student growth. They give examples of helping teachers improve by using newer technology—say videoing the top teachers in the state, tagging their lessons by specific standards and then allowing others to see how great teachers meet those standards.

Communities need to celebrate teachers and back their efforts—and not just with gift cards from the PTA, but with performance bonuses through which the top fliers collect some serious cash. The community should recognize that good schools are foundations for good neighborhoods.

Parenting is discussed here, and the controversial Amy Chua (author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book she says is about Chinese-style parenting) is quoted. I found her statements at odds with what the authors had said earlier in the book about the needs for creativity and imagining. (Chua never allowed her kids to have play dates, go to a sleepover, play computer games, choose an extracurricular activity—the list goes on. Not quoted here, but in the book is Chua’s admission that she shamed and insulted her kids publicly in her quest to make them the envy of other parents in the neighborhood. Some readers look at the book as more of a cautionary tale about to what ends a parent will go to twist a child into the mold s/he desires. However, her kids did end up as models, excelling in everything that she allowed them to try.) At any rate, the authors eventually make the point that results, rather than effort, pay off.

Although this is mentioned in the section on parenting, it warmed my librarian’s heart: Kids need books to succeed. Having more books in the home is as great an advantage to a child as having university-educated parents. (What That Used to Be Us doesn’t mention is that research also shows that a well-stocked, well-staffed school library can make up the difference for kids that don’t have books at home. OK, off my soap box.)

In concluding this discussion, the authors mention that getting an education should be about more than getting a job and that we want kids to become good citizens. They finish by giving a little slap to the movie Race to Nowhere.

The next discussion on educating kids revisits earlier themes in the book, reinforcing the idea that people must be able to communicate well in order to collaborate, and if they can’t collaborate, they will be less creative. Successful creators are, first, self-confident. (While I believe collaboration is very important, I want to play the devil’s advocate here on one aspect of collaboration. A recent study suggests that brainstorming in groups can be a waste of time and that the ideas generated won’t be as good as the best ideas that the best people will have alone. It suggests that to work well together, people must be grouped with others of similar abilities. This wasn’t in an educational setting, but if it is true, it’s a vote for tracking in education.)

Interestingly enough, in this section on creativity, Steve Jobs and Tony Wagner are quoted and the theme is that the problem with schools is that they don’t “respect play, passion, and purpose—and [isolate] those who won’t conform.” We need to teach the kind of risk-taking that develops self-confidence (God forbid we use the term self-esteem, with all its current negative connotations.) The reason these activities and qualities aren’t valued is that they can’t be tested. While I agree with the authors, I find this section at odds with the earlier hailing of ‘tiger mothering’ and Amy Chua. Even in That Used to Be Us, which is overwhelmingly a cogent argument, here, the authors have the same mixed messages for educators that we’ve been getting for years.

The whole of Part II ends with a section called “I Kill Jobs” and indicates that the only people who can’t be eliminated (in the job market—not murdered!) are the creative ones.

Yes—this is long, but so is Part II. It is also the most vital section of the book for educators. In my next post on That Used to Be Us, rather than looking at Part III, I will put up some links and titles that may be of interest as we grapple with the future of public education and what our jobs will look like in a few years. Then I’ll get to Part III.

Happy teaching! 🙂


About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
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