Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Path to Closing the Skills Gap

Here in Maine, we are told by our governor and our DOE commissioner that our kids don't learn in school the skills needed for the 21st century workplace.  I quote Commissioner Bowen: "we need to make every effort to prepare all students for college and 21st-century careers. For instance, our schools can do a better job of exposing students to potential careers throughout their time in school. And they need to align the skills taught in the classroom with the skills in demand at hospitals and machine shops, in wood lots and engineering firms."  His comments make the point that we have a skills gap in the state, a gap that can be filled by altering the educational path, and demands, for students whose goal is to enter the workforce after high school.  Bowen's concern is for those students who should enter the workforce immediately after high school or technical school, but I think it is the needs of all of our students that he is addressing. 

We also hear from Governor LePage that there are 21,000 unfilled jobs in this state - jobs that our students do not, and will not, have the pragmatic skills for - jobs that our students do not, and will not, have the habits of mind for.

In the 2007-08 school year, there were 17,270 enrolled in the state's graduation classes and 14,425 graduates.  Assuming that the governor is guilty of hyperbole, and that the actual number is really more like the 4,000 worker shortfall suggested in this Press Harold article, it would seem that Maine's drop-outs alone could do a good job of closing the jobs gap.  If there were a "track" for these at-risk (of unemployment) students, would the skills gap disappear? 

I think so.  Where the jobs in Maine (for both the college-educated and the trades-educated students) will come from is a separate question.  Preparing both cohorts for jobs in Maine is the key educational issue for our state.

But first let's have clarity: What is a "skill," educationally speaking?  Let's look at the origin of the word itself: Old Norse skil - discernment, knowledge.  In other words, skill originally meant that combination of executive function and learning that sets one worker or doer apart from others.  As used today, it also means expertise.

The best understanding for Maine students is found in combining the old and the new. In my exploration of this idea, I was pleased to see that Maine's Commission and Governor understand this, perhaps without knowing that they do.

Educationally speaking, developing skills means providing instruction, practice, and challenge in specific activities that will develop expertise while at the same time instilling the habits of mind that lead to success (such as hard work - more about that later) - and also measuring deeper "content knowledge" by assessing the ability to discern nuance, variation - to apply content learned to new situations, whether academic or pragmatic.

The habits of mind are Executive Function.  Dr. Judy Willis concisely lays out the what and how in her Edutopia article, "Three Brain-based Teaching Strategies to Build Executive Function in Students."  [Note: this should be the UR article for all discussions of Maine's assessments, not to mention PD.]  Willis writes:
As the caretaker of your students' brains during the years of rapid prefrontal cortex development, you should consider how you can activate and guide the development of your students' greatest resources -- strong executive functions. The opportunities you provide for mental manipulations using these critical neural networks are precious gifts. These tools will empower them to achieve their highest potentials and greatest satisfaction as they inherit the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. 

The best classroom teachers in Maine are already employing strategies to develop this resource, but as students move up the grade-level ladder, the content of those activities is increasingly academic.  For as many as 60% of our students, this content is not serving their needs. 

What does executive function have to do with the 21st Century workplace that was not also true of the 20th Century workplace?  Nothing. The problem is, we have left the educational pathway to ensuring equal success in its development for our kids.  Somewhere along the way the practical and pragmatic have gotten lost.  This is a great time to re-evaluate.

What are the skills our kids lack for success?  Not digital skills, surely.  Maine is a 1-1 state with a high rate of computer access k-12, so students will become digitally adept and up-to-date simply by going to school.  This is the great gift of the 1:1 program.  I discount "digital" as a lacking skill set. 

A month ago Commissioner Bowen was singing the praises of the adaptation of the CCSS; now he is calling for a totally new accountability and assessment measure that takes into account the need for job-related skills.  He appears to support contradictory philosophies of education.  But I think that what he envisions, overall, is a paradigm change backward - to the type of k-12 structure that was in place when I was at East Brunswick High School - updated by hindsight, by lessons learned - improved by appropriate assessments - expanded by appropriate schooling. [It would therefore be nice to include some "older folks" in the discussion, but that is another discussion].

It seems to me that mandated testing + the Common Core Standards will handle academic skills for college-bound students, even if the testing is slightly off-track for ELA.

But should the CCSS and its aligned testing be the standard for ALL students?  Yes and no.

Our governor is quoted as saying: "Quite frankly, one of the most disturbing things I heard today is our educational system is geared to send all students to a four-year college."

I find myself agreeing with Governor LePage - our k-12 educational system should not be totally geared toward 4-year college.  We need to quickly develop an educational alternative path that begins in middle school.  We might as well do this at the same time we are discussing plans for an NCLB waiver application and making post-secondary courses available to high school students.  We might as well look beyond pre-K and elementary literacy program improvement and envision what education should look like for the students who will not be college-bound.

Let's call it what it is: A job-bound path more focused on hands-on skills and real-world content knowledge than on intellectual/academic skills and knowledge.

I have no problem with that. 

The fact of the matter is that we have, in the guise of differentiation and the genius in every child, created a k-12 system in which heterogeneity is mandated.  All students are guaranteed access to the academic skills and knowledge needed to gain proficiency in the Standards (true of Maine's standards before the CCSS). Those who gain low proficiency do not fail, they continue on, with what supports the school is able to provide (there is a wide range of supports within Maine). Those who gain proficiency but are not interested in college as a goal become disaffected.  Those who want proficiency gain it, and with it gain a college-bound diploma.  For over a decade, public assessments and curricula declined in rigor to accommodate the less proficient and the disaffected. Rather than develop their strengths, interests and genius, our system has ignored it. This is the 21st century public educational system, so far. 

But it is changing - the CCSS are a return to rigor in ELA.  At the same time, states like Maine are taking a serious look at lack of proficiency growth overall.  Is testing an appropriate and reliable measure of the quality of education?   

I think this question is a good one - better to ask it than to summarily blame the quality of teachers.  [On that question I side with Brad Pitt and against Arne Duncan]. 

Not all students need or want Common Core proficiency in the academic skill and knowledge set. Equally important in Maine is a pragmatic skill and knowledge set. We are talking about the practical skills that get many kids jobs after focused training, just as an academic skill set is focused on obtaining a different type of job: traditional 4-year college.   

Commissioner Bowen wrote this week, "Employers said they need workers who are dependable and adaptable. They need to be able to work in teams, communicate clearly, think critically and learn new skills as needed. More need to be skilled in the trades."   He is speaking to the educational choice of proficiencies expressed in this diagram:

Performance skills, those that reflect habits of mind for success and the application of skills/content knowledge (underlined above), apply to all. These are executive function skills. With the exception of a small overlap, pragmatic and academic skills/content do not apply to all.

Assessments based on the CCSS do cover both academic skills/content and performance skills (at least, newly planned assessments should cover performance skills), but they do not cover pragmatic skills/content.  And these are the gap skills of concern to Maine.

The potential employers cited by Commissioner Bowen have it right. Our current k-12 educational system, focused as it in on standardized (not standards-based) testing, is letting those executive function skills fall by the wayside.  As my schematic suggests, the academic-focused students also need and lack these skills.  [Note: I think that is largely what post-secondary professors are seeing - a lack of performance, not a lack of academic preparation.]

We need to develop performance skills for all students, but also to attend more directly to the development of pragmatic skills and content knowledge. Commission Bowen appears to be suggesting a smooth path to skills development for students who are not academic/college-bound [Note: a small percentage of students will be academic but NOT college bound; they will want to be well-educated small business owners, entrepreneurs, parents, and otherwise self-employed]. These students need an education focused on the practical skills and content that will help them to aim for, secure, and keep good, solid jobs in Maine.

At the same time, ALL students should be held to rigorously assessed performance standards.

I can speak to ELA:  reading, writing, listening, and speaking through the 6th grade level would do the trick for the pragmatic path ("levels" as aligned to the current CCSS).  Doesn't seem possible? Check out the Common Core Standards.  Academic-specific language escalates after grade 6.  Students with a pragmatic life-goal do not need their standards to escalate - they need to attend to learning the skills that will help them to achieve a non-academic goal - and they need to focus on their performance skills.  In short, they need a different ELA path.  This might include:
  • collaborative reading of lexiled texts, followed by collaborative projects that make use of digital tools to create hands-on products
  • graphic novels
  • global/international reading lists, with a great deal of group discussion
  • Wabanaki culture study and speakers [this is a Maine specific need]
  • collaborative gaming [Note: read this MindShift post for a rationale: Is Gaming the New Essential Literacy?]
  • informational texts (manuals, guidebooks, how-to's, newspapers, trade journals) of scaffolded difficulty
  • informational writing tasks (creating manuals, guidebooks, how-to's, in-house journals) that make use of digital tools and collaborative idea development
  • digital tools and facilities appropriate to developing trade-based skills and performance skills: digital printing facility, garden center, in-school credit union, health/beauty center, food bank, small motor and technology repair shops, car detailing shop, wood-working shop, etc.  all within the middle school complex if possible.
  • community integration - use of community facilities, mentorships, partnerships - from the ELA point of view, the application process should require that those grade 6 ELA standards be met.
  • placements in the field - rigorous quasi-apprenticeships that prepare students for both the pragmatic and the performance demands of jobs - with placement assessments that include oral and written communication, listening, and speaking, as well as dependability, adaptability, teamwork, critical thinking, and ability to learn new skills and knowledge.  [Note: there should be an app for that.]
  • a Literacy certification or badge, with advancement levels, in place of SAT testing and an academic diploma.
  • faculty who can multi-teach: writing and programming, for example, are a successful mix (that is my mix); reading and industrial design might be another.  These would be difficult hires - so here is another idea from the past: team teaching.  Place a literacy and a trade expert in the same room at the same time.
  • blended online learning - although this is widely available for HS credit recovery in ELA and humanities subject, it tends to be "standards based," which means that it does not really meet the needs of pragmatic learners.  Adult citizenship and ELL course materials would be more appropriate.
    Literacy (reading, creating, viewing, communicating in all media) needs to be seen and sold as a pragmatic skill necessary to success and expertise in the workplace.

    Some students will develop a love of reading fiction, others will not.  We need to give up on this as an educational goal. 
    And what if a student wants to cross paths?  Say a 10th grader on the academic path wants a partnership to explore a career in retail business, environmental planning, or IT entrepreneurship.  These partnerships should be built into the core of a free education in Maine - with the option to opt out (to take AP level classes, for example, in place of a partnership).

    A more disruptive decision might be that made by a 15-year old who wishes to switch into an academic path.  What happens to the missed classes in ELA and mathematics?
    • Online, blended learning is made for this scenario
    • Formative, standards-based assessments are made for this scenario
    • Online tutoring (check out TutorCloud, an upstart education business) is made for this scenario
    • 1-1 or small group tutorials on the English model are made for this scenario - students pursue classes and independent work, meeting regularly with a tutor to assess progress.

    are key.

    Am I proposing a redesign of Maine's schools?  Yes - partially - this is a return to the mid-20th century concept of the "vocational track" in combination with a fast-track to technical school/community college (a European concept already adopted by several states). 

    The 21st century twist is this: It is equally viable and respectable not to be college-bound.  Civil rights for the pragmatic path.  It's time. 

    The problem is that change is a problem.

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