John Merrow on 21st Century Education

John Merrow, longtime education reporter and author, begins his blog post, “The Business of Schools is. . . . .?”, with a short multiple choice quiz:

Here are two multiple-choice questions for you:

1. The primary business of public schools is to produce:

   A. Educated students

   B. Knowledge

2. Which more accurately describes the structure of public schools?

   A. Teachers are ‘labor,’ and administrators are ‘management’

   B. Students are ‘labor,’ and teachers are ‘management’

Merrow’s quiz stems from the oft-cited idea that business leaders today are having difficulty finding ideally-prepared candidates for open positions at their companies:

For nine out of ten CEOs, the essential skills and capabilities are ‘work ethic,’ ‘teamwork,’ ‘decision making,’ ‘critical thinking,’ and ‘computer literacy.’ That’s according to a survey of 134 CEOs done by The Business Council and the Conference Board, whose ranks include most of America’s corporations. Unfortunately, these five skills are not taught in America’s classrooms. In fact, of the nine most valued skills, only two–‘basic reading and math’ and ‘writing and communications’–are school subjects. (The CEOs ranked them 6th and 7th.) How well do the schools teach those two skills? Not very, the CEOs report. Asked to rate the capability of their current workforce, just 23% rated it as ‘very capable’ in basic reading and math; the ‘very capable’ rating for writing and communication drops to 15.5%.

Merrow urges school to shift the way that they think about the purpose of their work from answers “A”, which he sees as relics of an industrial model of labor in the United States, to answers “B”, which will provide more businesses with the highly qualified candidates that they are looking for.

Beyond what businesses demand, Merrow argues that schools used to be needed largely because they had the human knowledge resources and information knowledge resources that could not be obtained elsewhere. Nowadays, the days of the Internet, Merrow urges schools to teach students to be analytical processors of information, the information that they already have access to by themselves but may not know how to process.

Schools also used to be important physical space for Americans of different backgrounds to get to know each other. In the Internet age, students often interact with others digitally just as much as physically, so, these “digital natives” need help from teachers to become “digital citizens.”

In conclusion, Merrow is somewhat hopeful that the Common Core is a step in the right direction, but feels that, “We are a long way from the tipping point.” While he acknowledges that many schools are already preparing students to become citizens of the 21st century, he still hopes for more changes that allow students to do more production that shows evidence of knowledge gained because this is what they will have to do in the working world of today.

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