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Introducing a Valuable Skill for All the Wrong Reasons: When Economic Development Trumps Child Development

August 18, 2019

I read with interest a recent NYTimes article by Dana Goldstein about the effort underway in Wyoming to move away from an economy based on diminishing low skill jobs related to extraction toward an economy based more on technology. The rationale for preparing students for a high tech world, though, seems flawed on two scores.

First, by making “economic development” the basis for mandating a course the State Education Department is explicitly linking schools to jobs– which is a fools errand in an age where jobs change far more rapidly than school curricula. Had the schools in the early 1960s tried to adapt their curricula to the emerging technology markets they would have never thought that computers would be available in the homes of the children they were teaching when they became adults and could not have possibly taught a computer language that would be applicable today. When I taught computers in the early 1970s we taught BASIC and used punch cards, the “state of the art” technology at the time— a language that is now as useless as Olde English and a process that seems prehistoric in an era of cloud data collections.

Second is the reality that the skills students need now to succeed in life are the same as the skills needed when I was in school— and they are the “soft skills” that schools avoid because they are not easy to define, harder yet to teach, and do not lend themselves to the “rigorous” (i.e. standardized test-based) measurement that provides a means of sorting students into groups. These life skills are also ones that cannot be replaced by a robot: they cannot be reduced to algorithms for they rely on human interactions.

And the idea of compelling schools to shoe-horn these new subjects into an already stuffed curriculum faces one other daunting challenge: money. As Ms. Goldstein reports:

…low taxes are an orthodoxy in Wyoming, and the Legislature did not dedicate any new dollars to the plan. That has left schools reliant on limited state, federal and philanthropic funds — and on individual educators… to bear the burden of introducing an entirely new subject.

Predictably, affluent schools, schools with wealthy benefactors looking out for them, and schools who obtain grants from philanthropists are doing well at meeting this fiscal challenge and, consequently, presumably preparing their children for a better world.

And just as predictably, the hopes of politicians to attack jobs that will entice students to remain in their home state seem likely to be dashed as well:

Wyoming educators say that despite the rhetoric of politicians and tech giants, they are teaching computer science to enrich their students, not to enrich the state.

“Our job is not to contain our kids in Wyoming,” said Craig Dougherty, the Sheridan superintendent. “They need to compete globally.”

And those who stay? They might benefit more from learning some of those soft skills and using their creative and interpersonal talents to develop businesses that cannot be outsourced. But since those skills are taught to measure… the kids are learning nothing of value.

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