How to fix Americ (Part 1: Education)

As this publication goes in a slightly different direction (quarterly) so will I with a three-part series to round out the year.  The subject: a rough blueprint on how to fix America. In this column, I will focus on education.

Trump “The Disrupter” was elected because voters grew weary of the Washington status quo. They got it partially right: Change is needed. But expecting Donald Trump to facilitate that change was a miscalculation.

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again.” But the slogan, like most of what emanates from 45’s brain, doesn’t mirror reality. While America remains the world’s greatest country, that same statement was once uttered about the Roman and British empires.

Simply put, we suffer from systemic problems. This isn’t surprising given our governing structure has changed little since its inception over 240 years ago. I think we can all agree that the world, and America, was a different place back then. And ask yourself this question: What built 240 years ago remains in wide use?

An easy scapegoat is blaming increased political gridlock. That culprit conveniently allows both parties to deflect blame on each other. In reality, both parties are equally guilty, but their failings are merely a symptom of the larger problem.

In today’s world sustaining greatness requires three well-functioning components: effective and efficient government, a business base that can consistently fuel economic growth, and last but far from least, a dynamic education system. Additionally, that education system must be available to everyone and it must continually foster the skills and knowledge that make the first two components work. Since people like slogans let’s call these three components “the pillars of progress.”

In this column, we’ll touch on education. The recent California teacher’s strike trumpeted familiar themes: bloated class sizes and underpaid teachers, both of which are byproducts of insufficient resources. Those resources are derived from taxes generated by businesses/employment and managed by the government. The question is: Are class size and teacher pay problems or symptoms? More importantly, will solving them eliminate the shortfalls of our education system?

Treating symptoms typically helps only around the margins. But when it comes to our education system, it’s the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. It may slow the bleeding, but without further treatment, the patient will eventually die.

Our education system is archaic and in desperate need of an overhaul. Reading, writing and arithmetic was the right formula in the early 19th century when that slogan was coined. But Dorothy, we’re not in the 1800s anymore. Sure, STEM has been added, but that’s only a baby step in the right direction. What’s needed is a giant leap. Of course, that requires even more resources, but let’s table that for now.

We can all agree that everyone should have access to an equal education. Yet little has been done to resolve the inequities that exist. Why? In part because solving the problem requires social change. It’s one thing to ensure that good schools exist everywhere. It’s another to foster a mindset that education realistically provides a path to a better life. The other obstacle is resources. Sensing a theme?

I would revamp the entire curriculum. We use (or even remember) too little of what we learn in school in daily life. When was the last time you encountered the need to solve an algebraic quadratic equation? That’s not to say possessing a basic understanding of math is unimportant. Far from it. Creating a foundation in reading (ability to absorb information), writing (ability to communicate) and math (ability to solve problems) are critical.

In today’s world, a curriculum should be flexible to allow students gifted in certain areas to accelerate their learning while simultaneously providing everyone else basic building blocks. A focus on providing life skills and identifying aptitudes and passions should be added to the mix. And wouldn’t it be nice if the government actually performed a useful function with respect to education? Instead of developing standardized testing, which accomplishes no useful goal, the government could use our resources to evaluate societal and industrial trends in order to anticipate the employment needs of the future.

Over the years I’ve repeatedly said that during periods of prolonged unemployment I’ve never seen a blank “want ads” page in a newspaper. These days the equivalent would be having no postings on Indeed. Often the problem isn’t a lack of jobs but a lack of skilled workers to fill jobs. Ask anyone in high tech manufacturing about the labor market. A similar issue exists within airline maintenance and in nursing.

Some argue that the shortages are overstated, which is likely true. In some cases, the problem may not be skills but desire. Truck drivers might be an example. Nonetheless, a significant component of the shortage is related to a talent mismatch.

As the manufacturing sector began to automate it didn’t take a genius to figure out that 10 years down the road fewer workers would be required. With self-driving cars emerging do we think the need for delivery drivers and courier services may disappear?

Many of these trends are predictable and the government can and should identify them and attempt to foster adjustments in education and training to create a workforce best suited for the economic challenges of the future. In other words: flexibility and adaptability.

A pillar of a revamped education system is a greater emphasis on vocational training and skills-based community colleges. And if we possessed sufficient foresight to create a public/private partnership, we could learn a few things from the German apprentice systems that would benefit both business and society.

Succinctly put, we need an education system that is fair to all, provides a foundation of basic knowledge and is sufficiently flexible and forward-thinking to maximize the alignment of skills with needs.

The challenge is that it requires massive resources, not unlike what we spend on the military. That issue will be addressed in the next installment.