Preparing Students Means Collaboration between Secondary Educators and Industry

12/06/2010 02:53 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the more amazing animals is the chameleon. They have the ability to change the way they look to adapt with their environment. This change is meant to protect them against predators in addition to serving as a strategy to attract a meal. For the chameleon, adapting is about both basic survival and thriving in new environment.

Industry does a great job with adapting to the changing times. Interstate competition amongst business has been replaced with global competition for markets, products and services. Industry understands that survival depends on their ability to adapt quickly and accurately to the changing marketplace. Clinging to the "old way" of doing business will mean failure and eventually the death of the enterprise.

So, how come in education, we continue to cling to the "old way" of doing things? How is it that as the world continues to change, education fails to change with it? We see the needs of industry and we see how the job market is changing and we all, by all I mean politicians and educators, talk of raising test scores and preparing students, but what does that mean? Why is America failing to provide a successful model for secondary education?

I submit that a major contributing factor of poor test scores particularly in math and science in comparison to our world competitors demonstrates a failure on the part of many educators to adapt with the changing economic and business climate.

Economies no longer function by themselves; national economies impact each other, as seen in our current recession. Corporations don't do business in the same way as they did 50 years ago... They don't do business the same way they did 10 years ago.

Ten years ago, if I called customer service for my cell phone provider, I would have probably spoken with someone from North Carolina or South Dakota. If I were to call that same cell phone customer service center now, I am sure that I would be speaking with someone from outside the United States, probably from the eastern hemisphere.

This is the world that we live in: a world that is economically globalized where business is concerned with the bottom line and staying in the black -- outsourcing, downsizing and creating quality products at low cost output are among the chief strategies businesses employ to make a strong profit.

When we talk about educating students to compete globally, this is what we should have in mind. Providing children with rich opportunities to learn is very important, but we must include practical and relevant knowledge that will get kids ready for the constantly changing world that awaits them; a world that will chew them up and spit them out if they are not prepared for it.

Early in the 20th century, two intellectual giants argued whether individuals should learn a theoretical/classics laden curriculum or a more practical/skills applicable curriculum; the purpose being preparing students to succeed in American society.

The two intellectuals were W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington. Both understood that education was the chief way to elevate African Americans in America but it was at this time that Dubois believed that a liberal arts education was the best way to prepare blacks for the challenges that awaited them and Washington believed that providing blacks with the needed skills that society required was the best way for preparing them for the challenges that awaited them.

As a nation, we must engage in a discussion much like Dubois and Washington. We are at a critical point where we must reevaluate our educational goals in regards to preparing our young citizens for the global economy. We are consumed by standardized test scores and quantitatively measurable benchmarks to assess student performance. However, our obsession with testing can and does hinder our focus on if measurable benchmarks meet the needs of what the current globalized labor market is looking for. Teaching kids to memorize vocabulary words, and how to solve for slope for the sake of passing a state mandated test is not the answer. Memorization doesn't make students smart... It makes them machines and machines do break down. Rather than teach students to memorize, we must teach them how to analyze and apply the information they learn.

The age of industrialization called for machines for mass production and our schools prepared students for such; our schools looked like factories that produced workers for the assembly line. Industrialization has been replaced by an economy that demands thinkers and not machines yet our schools continue to produce workers for the assembly line. That leaves our nation with an under-educated workforce and consistent levels of unemployment.

According to a President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report, our economy needs a large and increasing supply of workers who can routinely use scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical knowledge and skills in their jobs; this knowledge fuels innovation and entrepreneurship.

The report also expressed that the nation's ability to solve problems and propel economic growth will therefore depend on cultivating a future workforce that is proficient in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) -- and that employment in STEM fields has increased at a faster pace than in non-STEM fields. We as educators ought to be collaborating with business leaders in the areas of STEM fields to develop the curriculums that equip students with the skills those employers demand.

We are mandated to teach our students how to think, but we must first stop thinking too highly of ourselves and learn how to not over-think for such a common sense issue. Rather than creating impractical policy driven standards, that are designed to do nothing more than sound good and win elections, educators must get back to the basics and prepare students for the jobs that await them. The best way to do that is by asking their future employers exactly what skills they are looking for -- maybe we should test educators to see if they can figure that out.