Education Needs to be about Skills

I read an interesting pair of articles in the Wall Street Journal last week. They touched upon the challenges young people face on their path from high school to career. Our work at Opportunity Education makes this topic particularly interesting to me.

The first article, “Employers Rethink the Need for College Degrees in Tight Labor Market,” discusses how employers are beginning to move away from requiring undergraduate degrees. Many of them now prefer specific skills as a condition of employment. 

The second, “The Suicide of the Liberal Arts,” makes the point that the greater focus on specific courses of study rather than the more traditional liberal arts leaves students unfit for much other than entering graduate programs.

Education Needs to be about Developing Skills

While seemingly at odds with one another, these articles actually both make one essential point: education needs to be about developing skills. This includes both the specific skills that employers need, and more general skills such as clear communication and analytical reasoning. These skills are fundamental to many types of careers today. If we’re going to win at education, our educational system needs to give students these skills.

The failure of the education system to prepare students for success in the world in which they will live shows up in different ways at the different stages.  In high school, the emphasis is often on “all students college bound” without paying any attention to the career interests of students, the cost of college, or the potential return on investment for a college degree.  By the time students get to college, many of them will major in subjects where core skills have been replaced by specialized content. So rather than learning clear thinking and communicating, students are learning academic jargon that has no applicability outside academia. Employers make the problem worse by embracing credentials without understanding what the credentials mean.  A degree tells you little about what its holder knows, what skills she has, or what he can do. 

What can be Done?

What can be done to improve this situation? Through my foundation, Opportunity Education, I have developed better high schools, where the focus is not on merely completing courses, it’s on developing the learning and work skills students need for success.  

By giving students some choice in how they study, and in what they study, they can develop their educational experience to suit their personal goals.  To ensure that they understand their career options, I created the Opportunity Education Pathways Program, in which students have up to four years of internships while also learning about topics such as professionalism, finance, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

For those students looking to move beyond high school, I am in the process of creating a “great books” college-level program. This program will enable students to study the seminal ideas and books that have shaped the world we live in over the past 2,500 years.  Through close reading and facilitated discussion, supported by high quality video productions, students will sharpen their minds and develop skills that colleges used to value and that employers still desperately need.

A Clear Path

This is how we fix the path from high school to college for young people:

  • First, give every student a high school education that prepares them for the world of work and that helps them identify their best-fit path to a meaningful career.  
  • Second, for paths that lead through college, give students a new affordable option. For some this might be a short program serving as a springboard to a specific degree program or career.  For others this might mean completing a full degree comparable in quality to that of the best colleges in the world. 

If we do this, students will set themselves up to make meaningful contributions to our country and to their communities, while also ensuring themselves a sound financial future.

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