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Do We Just Want Our Kids to Get a Job, or Do We Want Them to Change the World?

To those of us who observe, study and serve America’s public education system, it would seem that, similar to public housing, we have only been marginally successful. In many urban areas, failure is all too common. From underpaid teachers, to misappropriations of funds, low test scores and the school-to-prison pipeline, many taxpayers are rightfully concerned about our children and this derelict system in which we’ve placed them. After such disappointment, new options and the value of diversification have begun to create a new education market. That, along with the never-ending virtualization, and the almost sacrosanct demand for online learning, it’s imminent, the American education system will change and soon. At the beginning of the 20th century, when urban populations became larger than the rural ones, industrialization drove our school system. Progressives advocated for vocational programs in schools, arguing against conservatives that “classical” education did not prepare children for the labor market. In other words, public school would be a waste of taxpayer money if it didn’t alleviate poverty or improve our ability to self-govern and address social problems. How they thought simply teaching people work skills would achieve that is a mystery. On the other hand, a more classical education, like what’s offered in many private schools today, is about teaching children “how to learn.” The development of critical-thinking skills, opportunities for experiential learning, emphasis on life-long learning, study of mathematics and sciences and the application of scientific method for post-secondary education and transferable skills for currently unforeseen, future careers. This bifurcation, although it certainly has its racist implications, seems to be first and foremost a class one. Think about it. Wealthy people weren’t sending their children to work in factories nor were they concerned about giving their family a public education to alleviate poverty. On the contrary, “ Taylorism” and the industrialized workforce served the very interest of wealth, so too did a “classical” education. So as we see it play out in history, public schools have traditionally been for working class people, offering them basic literary skills and a variety of vocational and industrial skills, while private schools have been the privilege of the rich. [pullquote position="left"]Our system continues to perpetuate a system of have and have nots. As the movie "The Social Network" once put it, "Unlike other institutions that teaches its students how to get jobs, Harvard teaches its students not to get a job but to create jobs." The question is: Do we realize that this is the system we’ve created? When we send our kids to public school, do we realize the opportunity cost? More importantly, should only private schools for the rich care about “how we learn”? And finally, should public school only be about creating a workforce pipeline?
Orie D. Ward is a Senior Management Consultant at Philogic that specializes in strategy, planning and innovation. He works with professional development associations in business and law to design and implement national program operations. He is also a former financial literacy teacher with programs that have been featured by the Wall Street Journal and U.S. Department of Treasury. He has sat on ...

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