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Employers' Challenge to Educators: Make School Relevant to Students' Lives

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Andreas Levers/Flickr
Andreas Levers/Flickr

Business leaders and economic thinkers are worried that today's students aren't leaving school with the skills they’ll need to succeed in the workplace. Representatives from tech companies and hiring experts are looking for applicants who show individuality, confidence in their abilities, ability to identify and communicate their strengths, and who are capable of thinking on their feet.

At the recent Next New World conference hosted by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, panelists addressed the question of how the American education system can better prepare students to meet the evolving challenges of the 21st century economy.

Every panelist agreed that right now, the U.S. does not have a system that produces students that meet those needs.

“The problem is not to get incrementally better with our current education system,” said Tony Wagner, expert in residence at Harvard’s Innovation Lab. “The problem is to reimagine it.” Wagner is not the first to call for a  make-over of the education system, and he certainly isn’t the first to advocate for content that connects with students in authentic ways or that teaches real world skills. His voice joins with the countless educators clamoring for the freedom to pursue those same goals.

“Content knowledge has to be engaging to kids,” Wagner said. “If kids aren’t motivated, you can pour content knowledge in their heads and it comes right out the other ear.” And while critical thinking and communication are important, Wagner said schools are in danger if they stop there. “Above all, they need to be creative problem solvers,” Wagner said.


Wagner highlighted schools in the deeper learning network like New Tech Network, Expeditionary Learning, High Tech High and Big Picture as school models that are aiming to fulfill many of these qualities. “Students are learning many more real world skills, as well as content knowledge, through projects,” Wagner said. “They're doing work worth doing. They’re doing work that’s interesting, and engaging.”

When these factors are woven throughout the school experience, students develop intrinsic motivation to take initiative and find their place in the world. They develop hope for what their future might hold. “Most kids are not low on goals and they’re not low on agency,” said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education. “It’s that they don’t see pathways.”

That’s why Wagner half-jokingly advocated for “Dream Directors” in schools, whose job it would be to help students identify their dreams and scaffold tasks to help students obtain the skills needed for that dream. Over time attention to the needs of individuals would transform the content and delivery methods in schools.

To transform education in ways that have impact, a bottom-up and top-down strategy should be implemented, Wagner said. If parents, students and teachers make their voices heard about what true accountability would look like, they could change the conversation. But the bottom-up strategy will only work, Wagner said, if it’s accompanied by business leaders clearly articulating the outcomes they’d like to see and helping align accountability to those outcomes.

“We need teachers and parents to advocate for a better system,” Wagner said. And perhaps most importantly, students need a voice as education goes through major changes. “We’re not asking students at all about what they think about the quality of their own learning and about what they aspire to learn,” Wagner said.


The changes and trends in K-12 education often seem completely divorced from higher education and the grueling college application process that lands students at colleges all over the country. But that might be changing. Recently, College Board officials announced they are changing the SAT to better reflect what students learn in school.

The SAT used to be like studying infinity, said David Coleman, President and CEO of the College Board. The new test is meant to focus on fewer standards, but reflect the most important ones more deeply. “Honoring those few things that have disproportionate power is the way through,” Coleman said.

The SAT has been criticized as an unfair measure of what students have learned or know because of the large tutoring industry that has sprung up around it, ensuring that wealthy kids get top scores. But that's also changing. Recently elite liberal arts colleges like Hampshire and Bard have announced they won’t consider SAT or ACT scores if they're submitted with an application, because admissions officers don’t believe the tests are a good measure of students' potential.

The College Board is trying to push back against some of the negative press by partnering with Khan Academy to offer free test prep materials that all students can access. They’re also doing more to reach out to the many qualified students in the lower quartile of income who never apply to university with specialized packets detailing how they can apply for assistance to pay for application fees and tuition.


Many educators would argue that even once students make it to college -- the stated goal of many high schools -- the education they receive there isn’t preparing them to become innovative thinkers and engaged citizens.

Thomas Friedman, Richard Miller and Tony Wagner discuss education at the Next New World Conference in San Francisco. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
Thomas Friedman, Richard Miller and Tony Wagner discuss education at the Next New World Conference in San Francisco. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Gallup recently did a study of college graduates to gauge how engaged they are with their work and whether they are thriving in the world. In the past, the most studies centered around on how much college graduates earned compared to peers without degrees.

The survey found that student who felt supported -- that their professors cared about them as individuals, that professors made them want to learn, that they had a mentor -- were three times more likely to thrive as those who did not feel supported. Only 14 percent of college graduates answered that all three of those qualities were present in their college experience.

Even fewer college graduates found their higher education experience to be relevant to life and work after college. Only six percent reported with strong affirmatives that they worked on a long term project (at least a semester), had an internship where they could apply skills, and were very engaged in an extracurricular. If a graduate answered “strongly agree” to all three of these qualities he or she was three times as likely to be engaged at work.

These numbers show that colleges, like K-12 institutions, need to care for individual learners. Feeling connected and mentored makes a difference, just as understanding how learning is relevant and applicable makes students feel prepared for life after college. Without a move in that direction, the U.S. risks continuing to educate young people who go into the workplace disengaged and less likely to thrive.


The founders of Olin College identified the gap in skilled workers ready for jobs in science, technology, engineering and math and decided to start over with a completely different kind of university. To apply, students visit the college and work in groups on projects. College staff are evaluating them for how they will fit in at the university, primarily looking for strong problem solvers and people who know how to make things.

“Its purpose is to produce education innovators,” said Richard Miller, president and professor at Olin College. The Massachusetts college is an education laboratory. There are no departments, no tenure, no tuition and the curriculum has an expiration date so that it stays relevant.

“Olin is essentially a 'maker' university,” Miller said. In one class, students are asked to identify a group of people whose lives they want to change. Through research and interviews they develop a sociological profile of the group that is used to come up with two to three systems, devices or technologies that don’t already exist and that the group says would make a difference in their lives. Students then develop the specifications for the product and show how to build it. By the end of the course they have the outline for a patent.

“By the time they graduate a significant fraction of them already have companies they are working on,” Miller said. While the school focuses on STEM, students learn about business too. Miller hopes these students leave school thinking about how they can change the world, not about what job they will get. “We are taking too narrow of a view of what the sciences are and trying to make them too technical,” Miller said. In his mind, an innovator is someone who changes something so profoundly people can’t remember how it was before.


“Students are the power tools of change in education,” Miller said. “They are the most ignored and they have the most at stake.” But, as Olin has found, when they are given free range to design, make and innovate they can be very powerful examples of what a great education can produce.