Within the next three years, the federal debt is expected to reach its highest level in our nation’s history, according to a new report released by the Congressional Budget Office last week.
While the report primarily cites “economic disruption caused by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic,” our country’s aging population is also a contributing factor. That’s why, instead of cobbling together a short-term fix, legislators and school leaders must invest in long-term solutions that will strengthen the next generation workforce. This plan should begin and end with the ways we choose to educate our students.
The CBO report is a staggering reminder that we need to do more to prepare our kids and younger employees for our rapidly expanding 21st century workforce. We’ve all read the stats and seen the headlines: “Baby boomers are retiring in droves.” But rather than allow the pandemic to be a setback in our quest to prepare for this upcoming reality, we can use it as a springboard for action in the classroom.
Tens of thousands of students have started or are expected to start the school year online this fall. That means we have tens of thousands of chances to equip students with socially relevant and in-demand job specific skills at the same time. The online learning experience can offer this and more.
For example, with teachers acting as guides or coaches, students can pursue projects in which they learn the basics of chemistry and the real world applications of chemistry from IBM engineers who helped communities rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Or maybe they can participate in apprenticeship training in one of the growing skilled trades or work toward a technician certification in the rapidly expanding pharmacy job market.
These types of student-centered learning approaches go by several names — project based learning is one of them. You know, sometimes in education we like to get hung up on labels. But it’s not what we call this style of teaching and learning that matters. Rather, it’s what students have the chance to do with it that counts.
In many ways, cities like New York have been at the forefront of this innovative academic model. For example, at the Pathways in Technology Schools (P-TECH) students regularly collaborate with various corporations and organizations to develop logistical plans, organize community health seminars and launch website redesign, among many other initiatives.
Studies suggest that in addition to fostering student learning, project based learning “may be more effective than traditional instruction in social studies, science, mathematics.” That’s because it provides our kids with the academic, professional and social skills they will continue to need to thrive in a multicultural, global society. This opportunity can truly tap into the imagination of each student and transform their entire learning experience — from kindergarten through high school. Students can gain exposure to booming career fields like healthcare, information technology and advanced manufacturing. They can also hone valuable digital skills — particularly in an online learning environment.
For generations, we’ve measured academic success by the number of historical dates students memorize or by the highest test scores they earn. However, these aren’t the only or even the best indicators of aptitude. Now more than ever, students are seeking what most of us are also after: they want to be creative; they want to make a difference; and they want lessons that are real and relevant for the world they live in. This fall, the online classroom should be an innovative space where they can find all three.
However, we know that project based learning won’t work for every student. But read this carefully — the one thing we can do to ensure more of our students succeed is to abandon the idea there’s only one thing we can do. The ways in which we educate our children shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. It shouldn’t be about embracing one type of curricula or one kind of pedagogy because a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work. What does work is making lessons real, applicable and pertinent to each individual student’s life. That’s what project based learning does.
The deep, ugly divisions and uncertainty in our country would make any parent want to hug their children a little closer and love them even deeper. But we want to urge parents and legislators alike to avoid allowing fear to become a roadblock to progress. As adults, as educators, as leaders — it’s our responsibility to mold our children into change seekers because the status quo is rarely ever good enough.
So, these are our asks of you — will you help students become the innovative thinkers our world needs them to be? Will you join us in teaching them how to be proactive in addressing the issues for which our generation and generations before us have fallen short? This moment compels us to think about the role education can and should play in our economy and our larger society. Let’s try to do everything we can to embrace it.
Mike Dardaris is an education innovation expert and senior director of Career Learning Solutions at K12 Inc. Diallo Shabazz is director of the New York State PTECH Leadership Council.