Snapshot by Kevin Carey

The necessary evolution of K-12.

America is prosperous and mostly at peace, but it doesn’t feel that way for a lot of people. The labor market’s insatiable desire for productivity is constantly upending the stable ground of employment. Each new downturn wipes out whole categories of jobs while credentials and skills that used to provide stability during economic tumult are losing their power. 

At the same time, we all seem to be living under a panopticon inside a Tower of Babel—constantly surveilled yet unable to communicate as warring political tribes develop separate cultures and languages. Algorithms feed us content designed to trigger our over-stimulated outrage mechanisms, regardless of the truth. Every smartphone is an epistemic crisis machine.

So how do we deal with the changing labor market and the bombardment of information happening at our fingertips? How do we, as a society, withstand the current pace of change?

One way is to build resiliency. And because resiliency can be taught, we often look to our schools as a starting point. But even there the story is not what you’ve been told.  

You may have heard, for example, that 65 percent of the jobs that will be filled by today’s school children haven’t been invented yet. The Secretary of Education Betsy Devos said so herself. Or you may have heard that 85 percent of 2030 jobs don’t currently exist, that they have yet to be invented. Or maybe you’ve heard some other dire combination of large numbers and dwindling years that made you envision robots washing your windows or fixing your car.  

These claims about educating a workforce for jobs that don’t yet exist usually preface a scathing critique of contemporary education.  It is criticized as being antiquated and “industrial,” so hopelessly behind the times that only radical reinvention will do, possibly involving teaching kindergartners to code, or how to become disruptive start-up entrepreneurs, or both. 

But the problem with that critique is that those numbers are also entirely fabricated. Made up. Bunk. 

There is no credible evidence whatsoever to support the idea that 85 percent of 11-years-from-now jobs don’t currently exist, or 65 percent, or anything remotely close to those numbers. Today, millions of people work as school teachers, nurses, software engineers, accountants, and electricians, and that will still be true a decade from now. Robots are not going to teach your children or fix your plumbing or produce your favorite movie or take care of your aging parents, at least not anytime soon. 

The real crisis, and by extension the real threat to resiliency, is not that we don’t understand how to give people a great education that will prepare them for a turbulent future. It’s that we only give that education to a certain class of people. 

American education is, compared to all similar nations, especially decentralized, unequal, and market-driven. We leave states and localities to finance K-12 schools with whatever funds they have available. Increasingly, college students are made to pay whatever exorbitant prices the market demands. As the relative price of non-skilled labor continues to decline (that’s one future trend you can count on), our unequal educational system will increasingly serve as an accelerator of raging inequality. 

That, in turn, will make America weak and brittle—essentially unresilient. If we’re going to regain our position of world leadership and restore the lost promise of intergenerational economic progress, we’ll need everyone onboard. A resilient America is an equitable America, and right now our school systems are making things worse instead of better. 

Building a resilient America will mean finally moving past the 19th century system of tying school resources to property values. It will mean elevating the teaching profession via recruitment, pay, and training to the ranks of sophisticated knowledge work, where it belongs. It will mean wrestling the wildly dysfunctional college market under control. It will mean extending our educational obligations from the youngest child to the mid-career worker to the longtime community member and to all points in between. 

The good news is that all of these solutions have already been implemented somewhere. States such as Minnesota have moved education funding away from property wealth and provided more money to high-poverty schools than to wealthy schools. Oklahoma, Florida, and Vermont now provide public pre-school to over 70 percent of four-year-old children. Federal lawmakers have developed new, outcomes-based standards to cut bad actors out of the college financial aid system. New America is implementing a national network of partnerships between high schools, colleges, and employers to develop innovative apprenticeship-based pathways to in-demand careers. 

But for every state that’s moving ahead with providing equal educational opportunity, others are lagging behind. And some of the gains of recent years are under attack from people who don’t see education as a public good. 

To be sure, there’s a lot of room for innovation in educational policy and practice. But this will largely consist of developing more effective ways of teaching students what they have always needed to know: how to think and reason and understand. In every future we could possibly want for our children, they will need a deep understanding of history and science, art and philosophy. They will also need practical skills that lead to sustainable careers. It’s a lot to ask, but not more than people of means already provide for their children, and certainly not beyond the capacity of the richest nation on Earth. 

A better-educated America will be more able to withstand onslaughts of political propaganda, both foreign and domestic. It will help workers compete in a labor market that demands more and more. Education itself isn’t enough, of course; we also need economic, tax, social, and labor policies that provide jobs to match—a human-centered capitalism that values family thriving as much as the financial bottom line. But people who fully understand both the greatness and shame in our past will be more likely to build an enlightened future together. 

The challenge of the future is less about imminent radical change than it is about inexorability—more pressure, more stress, more information, with no let-up in sight. There’s comfort in the fact that we don’t have to throw out everything we know about education and schooling and start over. We just have to, finally, give everything we know about education to everyone, everywhere. 


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Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey is the vice president for education policy and knowledge management at New America and directs the Education Policy program. He writes regularly for The Upshot at the New York Times and has written feature articles for Wired, the New Republic, Pacific Standard, Washington Monthly, and other publications. He is a contributing writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education and edits the annual Washington Monthly college guide. His book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere was published by Riverhead in 2015.

Prior to joining New America, Carey worked as the policy director of Education Sector, and as an analyst at the Education Trust and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He has also worked for the Indiana Senate Finance Committee and as Indiana’s Assistant State Budget Director. Carey has a bachelor’s degree from Binghamton University and master’s degree from the Ohio State University.

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