Vol 30, Issue 3 Print Issue

Guest Column: Are Students Prepared for Change?

Tom Luce
Tom Luce

Many a state leader has quoted the old saying, “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” But that adage needs to be updated for the 21st Century in Texas. In the past, you could teach a man to fish with a single lure —such as farming or factory work — that could be used to earn a living for many years to come. However, in our increasingly complicated world, students need more than one lure. They must develop new skill sets continuously as the demands of the modern economy evolve. The tools of all trades, whether on Wall Street or on an assembly line, are changing so rapidly that skills that were relevant a few years ago are obsolete today.

The challenge for Texas leaders is: How do we ensure that our children can compete and thrive in this ever-changing economy?

The 83rd Texas Legislature has vowed to tackle the issue of education, which is the right place to start. But first, the legislators will have to answer this: What is the purpose of education? Many in Austin want to see the public schools make our kids “career-ready” with the specific technical skills needed to join the workforce. While teaching students technical skills is beneficial, that targeted learning may be rendered useless if it means sacrificing a core education that would provide more flexibility in the future.

We cannot return to the days when some students were put on a college track while others were relegated to a vocational track. Welding can no longer be learned in shop class. A welder entering the workforce today has to understand metallurgy and be capable of reading complicated design drawings. To repair a car, a mechanic must be able to fix the computer components in the vehicle. In deciding what path Texas public education should take, we cannot eliminate core education in the name of “career-ready” technical skills for several very important reasons.

Public schools are neither intended to nor well suited to determine the current and future workforce needs. It is not their core competency, nor should it be. The world is changing too fast. The private sector has embraced this new pace of change and is laying the groundwork to re-train employees on new technology every few years. Deloitte’s new “campus” — an enormous corporate training facility outside of Dallas costing an estimated $300 million — is a good example.

Even if public schools could predict future workforce needs, they do not have the personnel, equipment, or budgets to keep up with the changes.

Our workforce requires — and our public schools must provide — trainable skilled workers. The operative word is “trainable.” The ability to think critically is a must. Students need to take math and science courses that develop higher-order cognition skills. Without them, students never transition from rote learning to critical thinking. There is a reason why performance in algebra is the greatest predictor of academic success post-high school; it is the first hump students must get over in their transition to thinking critically.

Students may never encounter the need to solve for “x” in a quadratic equation after high school, but they can be assured that there will be variables in their future that they will have to analyze. The ability to solve problems — or not — will be the primary economic differentiator.We must teach Texas students to think, not just to do.

With more than $5 billion cut from public school financing last session and a tight budget this session, there are sure to be vicious tug-o-wars over where Texas taxpayers’ money should be spent. Let’s hope the Legislature will focus on programs that efficiently produce measurable results, like the Advanced Placement Incentive Program. This approach transforms school cultures by raising the academic bar and has proven phenomenally successful in teaching students the kind of higher-order skills that will prepare them for college or careers. If we skimp on funding or only fund marginally effective approaches from yesterday, we will relegate our kids to minimum wage jobs.

It would not only be a social disservice but also an economic disaster if we teach our children how to fish without giving them the critical thinking prowess needed to reteach themselves how to fish when new skills are required. The only certainty is that that change will come. Texas must be prepared, for our children’s sake.

Tom Luce, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, is Chairman of the Board of the National Math and Science Initiative.