One of the things I read frequently is that U.S. schools are not preparing students for the global economy. To cite evidence of this, we often see data from international tests like the PISA or the TIMSS. Yes, it’s true that given an international comparison, the test scores of U.S. students are not where we would like them to be. And I could spend a lot of time writing about the different educational, cultural and governmental issues that contribute to those differences (I’ve experienced some of them firsthand). But I would like to forget all of that for a minute and focus on the “global economy” portion of that statement.

The assertion is that we need to be globally competitive when it comes to preparing our students for the workplace and that some of these countries are taking us behind the woodshed when it comes to student performance and preparing students to compete for jobs in the global economy. Singapore, Finland, and South Korea are often cited as countries that are getting it right. I don’t have a degree in Macroeconomics, but when it comes to the global economy are we really that worried about Singapore, Finland, and South Korea? Their combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is less than 10% of the United States. Are these countries a global economic threat to the U.S.? Hardly.

After the U.S., the next three largest GDP’s are China, Japan and Germany. Collectively, their GDP’s rival ours. China, perhaps the economy that could pose the most immediate threat to U.S. market share, has a GDP about 40% the size of ours. I would be genuinely concerned if their scores were better than ours, but they’re not even on the list and I don’t hear anyone talking about the Chinese education system. Japan consistently scores higher than we do and Germany below. I’ve been to Japan and spent some time studying their education system. While we wonder how they get such great test scores, they wonder how we get our kids to be creative problems solvers. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to competing in a global economy, I’ll stick with the problem solvers.

I realize that I’m probably in the minority here, but this entire concept feels like a non sequitur. Education is both a means and an end. It’s the greatest social equalizer in existence. It is the means to overcoming poverty, bias and outright discrimination. But we used to look at education as the ultimate end. It was something desired for its intrinsic value. When my parents told me I needed an education, they didn’t mean that I needed it so I could get a good job; they meant I needed it because it was part of being a good citizen and a good human being. It was something they required of me like ethics and morals. And let’s be clear, they weren’t talking about going to college. Not everyone is afforded that opportunity. They meant I had a responsibility to learn how to learn and how to appreciate and discern the things that are worth learning.

Unfortunately it feels like the valuable end of being well educated has somehow been subjugated to the means of being a functioning cog in the wheel of the almighty global economy. At the federal and state level we’ve become more concerned with preparing students for the workforce than ensuring they are “educated”. An educated student can learn almost any job and do it well. They confront challenges and solve problems. The irony is that businesses want flexible, collaborative, life-long learners. The reality is that the accountability measures our legislators have demanded to ensure schools are producing those kinds of students aren’t testing for those characteristics.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a leading advocate for workforce preparedness, lists creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration and technology skills as the skills necessary for students to be successful in a global economy.  Anyone believe that our paper and pencil, fill in the bubble, multiple choice state accountability tests are assessing for those characteristics? You can’t assess creativity, collaboration and problem solving very effectively through a test like PAWS or even the ACT. Students “prepared for the workforce” using these measures as the primary determination for success have a much narrower scope for potential success in my opinion. High stakes tests are one variable in determining whether students are likely to be successful, but they certainly aren’t the whole equation.

The sad part is that as an education community, we’ve contributed to this misconception.  We drank the kool-aid. Try and find a school district that doesn’t have a statement about preparing students for the “global work force” in their mission statement.  I’m not saying that shouldn’t be part of our mission, but silly me, I thought we were supposed to prepare students for LIFE…and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hope I’m not alone when I think that preparing our students for success means more than being well prepared to get a job.

So let’s turn down the global economy rhetoric. Let’s forget about the means for a while and focus on the end. We all want our students to be creative, innovative and collaborative. But those skills are as important to a good quality of life as they are a high paying job. The research says we are preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist. Those jobs will require learners rather than workers. Dwight Eisenhower said, “No one can defeat us unless we first defeat ourselves.” In education, we have only defeated ourselves if we admit the primary value of the education is for a purpose other than the education itself.

About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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  1. Pingback: » My Sup’s post about workforce and global competition A Rainbow of Chaos

  2. Julie Huntley says:

    If our educational systems stimulate us to establish core values that build discerning persevering, resilitent and CARING communities then we have met the goal!

  3. John Asplund says:

    Jay, it’s great to see you running this blog! My district in Illinois is struggling with this same issue. We have been outspoken here that the Accountability Movement in this country has come at the expense of academic standards. The public education system in this country was built on the concept of local control. Local boards of education were/are selected to, in part, determine what subjects should be taught, based on local needs. The fact that we now live in a global economy somehow makes some believe that local people are no longer able to determine how to best meet the needs of its people.

    Full disclosure, Jay is my good friend and I am most definitely biased, but let me assure you good readers that your children are in excellent hands. Jay is a fine man and almost as smart as I am 🙂

    Great blog Jay!

    John Asplund, Ed.D.
    Superintendent, Lake Bluff School District
    Lake Bluff, IL

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