How to Educate the Future Workforce

educating workforce

In “What Is Business’s Social Compact?“, Bernard Avishai examines the nature of business’s social responsibility in a competitive environment that has superseded Adam Smith’s division of labor. The nature of work has undergone, and continues to undergo, a fundamental transformation. Today’s managers feel that a once clear separation between public and private sectors has broken down. More specifically, they are spending heavily on education and training and wondering if doing so is their responsibility.

Does business have an obligation not only to train its current employees but also to educate the workforce of the future? What form should business’s involvement in education take? According to Avishai, today’s learning organizations must be teaching organizations too. Managers must recognize their obligation to support such efforts and, given the revolutionary potential of the new information network, exploit their ability to profit from them.

Bernard Avishai’s diagnoses of U.S. education are as valid as his prescriptions are naïve. Although he grasps the troubles in our cities, the poor performance of our students, and the need for modernization, Avishai ignores three critical conditions confounding the innovations that he prefers.

First, he overlooks the social context of schooling. The breakup of family and the breakdown of community, together, adversely affect the ability of children to learn. Second, public schools — fractured, overly specialized, and “loosely coupled” institutions — are not structured for easy reform. Try introducing a new computerized mathematics program into a system where teachers work in isolated classrooms, away from other colleagues, and have little or no time to share with and support one another. And third, public education is a public monopoly and thus has hardly any incentive to innovate at all. Public education was until recently insulated from pressures to compete, change, and improve. Avishai and other reformers should consider many kinds of schools: public (magnet schools of choice), private, and parochial.

By 1900, the rudimentary training for which public schools had originally been established had already been undermined by educators and schools that were acting as if their mission were the true liberal education of the masses. A decade later, however, the pendulum had swung the other way.

In 1913, William H. Maxwell, New York City’s school superintendent, reacted angrily to growing demands by the business community, under pressure from German competition, for the introduction of vocational education. He spoke of the “arrogant unreasonableness” of educational theorists who “denounced the public schools because they are not training artisans.” Nevertheless, schools changed. Vocational education flourished, and schools began to turn out factory workers and clerks.

Then — like today — tens of thousands of non-English-speaking, culturally diverse, immigrant children from the poorest socioeconomic groups flooded the schools. Under the pressure of this increased population, the factory-model school was born. It survives to this day and is the reviled object of educational reformers, philosophers, and business-people alike. All of us want to end top-down, bureaucratic management, standardized testing as the only measurement of productivity, the teacher as lecturer, and inflexible union rules.

The Oxford Academic wants the new way of doing business introduced to our schools. In education, we’re calling this site-based management and shared decision making. We’re struggling to introduce technology and computer-assisted instruction; interactive, interdisciplinary curricula; performance measures, incentives, and standards.

A few educators disagree. They are rallying for a back-to-basics approach. Others are overwhelmed by the demands that the new socialization puts on us: How do we maintain the civil society that business needs in order to function? What curriculum changes can we make to prevent kids from killing one another? What conflict resolution and peer mediation programs? What family living and socialization texts should we use? What school restructuring? And what is the role of business in all this?

Education always requires complex answers. However, there are a few specific, fairly simple ideas for business to follow: keep people employed; support higher salaries for urban teachers; improve the education of prospective teachers; direct the bulk of available resources into classrooms; support the continuous education of working teachers; help recruit the best possible school principals; and, finally, learn from the schools that have successfully combined vocational-technical education with academics.

As James Brian Quinn points out, employees of tomorrow will need to know customers and understand software, machines, protocols, and telecom equipment. But they’ll still need schools to teach them the qualities that Avishai summarizes so well: the capacity for grace under pressure, abstract thinking, cogent speech, and problem solving.

To suggest, as Bernard Avishai does, that business recognize its “collective stake” in helping create the “architecture of new educational institutions” underscores the new dynamic of business, education, and government increasingly finding ways to forge a common language and sense of purpose when it comes to education reform.

Indeed, education reform can only happen if it is comprehensive, creating new partnerships at every level: from early-childhood-development and school-to-work programs to after-school and summer programs. Business leadership has been central, along with the nation’s governors, to the growing support for new, higher standards, which are embodied in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

Business has to act as a counterbalancing force and help create the framework for real consensus building around a new set of assumptions that recognize the impact of technology and the very great need to rethink how we teach and learn, regardless of which school a child attends. And if that task isn’t difficult enough, the process of education reform is becoming still more complicated by the changing demographics of our school-age population. At issues.org they point out tha an older generation of taxpayers who have raised their children and, to their minds, paid their dues must now be persuaded that it is the business of the nation to educate a more racially mixed school-age population, including millions of new immigrants.

The Clinton administration, with strong business support, is working hard to promote new school-to-work legislation to help propel the majority of high school graduates into the workplace. We can no longer use high schools to sort young people into one track that leads to college and another that leads nowhere in particular. We know that the majority of high school graduates—around 75%—either will not attend or will not finish four years of college. This is our future workforce. Business should be fully involved and engaged in the process of implementing school-to-work programs at the local level.

Just as we need to rethink how we educate our children and reinvent our high schools, business will have to reformulate long-held assumptions about the place of work and even about the time when work is done. The necessity of new thinking is becoming increasingly evident given the capacity of new information technologies. For example, my colleague Attorney General Janet Reno makes the case that the best way to stop crime and help children is to change the workday. Adults should finish work by the time their children finish school.

Surely, we need to inject good business sense into the process of reforming education. After all, you can’t spend tax dollars or continue to do what you have been doing without asking, in the end, whether or not it works. However, the privatization of education in order to achieve quality and performance will have to meet some basic criteria that may not lend themselves to a high profit margin: curricula that meet world-class standards, the education of all children including the disadvantaged and the disabled, and accountability to the public. Sorting out the cost and the profit of this effort has yet to be done.

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