January 13, 2013

Charles Lawton: Turn education on its ear to leap the skills gap

I've been scolded by readers recently for not presenting solutions. "You're great at posing the questions," they say. "Why don't you give us some answers."

My standard response is to claim the mantle of the public policy analyst. My job is to formulate the questions I believe we should be thinking about, present the data I believe make the questions important and challenge people to do their own thinking. Touting my conclusions merely adds another gong to the din of opinion that already engulfs us.

That said, I think the answer to the skills gap question so many are concerned about is deconstruction.

First, both job providers and job seekers must disabuse themselves of the various meanings -- implicit and explicit, conscious and unconscious -- of the word "qualified."

In a world characterized by both rapid change and instantly accessible information, the idea of being qualified is obsolete. Whatever skills and attitudes qualified me for a job yesterday will be different tomorrow, both because the skills have changed and because the job has changed.

What employers and employees both need is learning capacity and an expectation that such capacity will be put to the test on a regular basis, annually, quarterly, sometimes even daily.

The most important gap is not between skills we know we need now but don't have. It is, rather, between the skills we know we need now and those we don't know we will need in the future.

And bridging this gap will require not merely attracting and keeping more people in a specified set of courses of study, but an entire restructuring of both our system of education and of our system of linking education to employment.

This restructuring must start with changes to our traditional modes of instruction. We must reverse the long-standing, convenient, but dysfunctional pattern of "give lectures in school and solve problems at home."

In a world of declining enrollment, rising per-pupil costs and growing public resistance to higher property taxes, we must harness Maine's first-in-the-nation broadband capacity. This telecommunications investment in the state's schools and libraries can be used to make intriguing, engaging, well-produced "lectures" available to all students online and match them with personalized, one-to-one exchanges with teachers in schools.

The key to learning is a good teacher. And the key to a good teacher is imaginative, creative, productive relationships with individual students. We need to create a system where that relationship ranks highest in a calculation of the shares of a teacher's time.

At the same time, we must abandon the equally long-standing and dysfunctional pattern of school organization that demands everyone progress in lockstep, where grades are defined by age, where everyone must cover the same material over the same time and where teachers often must teach to the test.

We must trade that for a system based on recognition of individualized learning patterns and rates of progress, a system where advancement is determined not by pages turning on a calendar but by certification of individual competency based on demonstrated proficiency.

Again, as with Internet connectivity, Maine is well positioned to make these changes. Last year the Legislature mandated that by 2017, Maine high school graduation requirements be changed from course completion lists to demonstrated proficiency in eight content areas.

How proficiency will be measured and what level will be deemed sufficient to be certified will, of course, be the subject of great debate. But then so is the nature of every new position brought before a corporate division manager by a program leader seeking approval. What needs to be done? Why do you need an additional person to do it? How will you know which candidate will do it best?

These are the sort of practical, real-world questions businesses seeking to fill perceived skills gaps are asking now. They are the same sorts of questions Maine schools should be asking of their students and should be developing the means to answer.

And, most importantly, they are the sort of questions each student should expect to ask him or herself on a regular basis for as long as she/he expects to be a member of the labor force.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be reached at:

clawton@planningdecisions.com

 

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