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Here's What One State Is Doing to Prepare Students for the Jobs of the Future

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You've heard the dire warnings before: Other countries are zipping past the United States when it comes to preparing students for the workforce. Meanwhile, robots are getting more and more capable of taking over our jobs.

It could all add up to a future of yawning unemployment and increasing low-wages—unless the U.S. can figure out a way to keep pace with top school systems around the globe, according to experts like Marc Tucker, the founder and former president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit research organization.  

So what can states, districts, and schools actually do about that? Tucker thinks that Maryland may be a model.

The state recently approved $850 million for education funding—considered the first step in making good on the vision of a legislature-appointed commission charged with making recommendations for the future of schooling in the state. The new money is slated for increasing teacher pay, expanding prekindergarten programs, and establishing more wraparound services—such as mental health—in high-poverty schools. (The plan was approved by a Democratically-controlled legislature. Maryland's GOP governor, Larry Hogan, allowed the increase to become law without his signature.)

If all goes as many in the state legislature plan, the money will be down payment on a blueprint written by a commission created by the legislature in 2016 and chaired by William Kirwan, the former chancellor of the University of Maryland system.

That panel, which put out a report earlier this year, recommended a whopping $3.8 billion, 10-year plan built around five principles. Those include: investing in high-quality early-childhood education, raising standards and providing new career opportunities for teachers, creating a world class instructional system aimed at getting students prepared for college and technical jobs, and providing more support to students in poverty. The commission also planned to hold the state accountable for progress toward these goals.

The policy prescription could help vault Maryland, which right now sits in the middle of the pack, to the top of the heap, when it come to student achievement, experts said. 

"Whatever happens now in Maryland sends a message" to policymakers that if "they invest that capital and their power in this agenda ... that is a great big changer. It gives the United States a chance to do what must be done," Tucker said in an event in Washington Thursday showcasing the state's work.

When it comes to preparing students for the future of work, the commission's report outlines four potential pathways, all of which would be available to kids at the end of 10th grade, provided their math and literacy skills are up to the level where they will be handle the work. Students would have a choice of participating in at least one of the following:

  • the International Baccalaureate Diploma program, the Cambridge International Diploma program, or a sequence of Advanced Placement (AP) courses leading to an AP Diploma;
  • a dual-enrollment program to earn college credits while in high school, with the possibility of earning an associate's degree at the same time they get their high school diploma, or shortly after, or
  • a redesigned Career and Technical Education program that include hands-on job training and lead to industry-recognized credentials.

The report doesn't go into a ton of detail about how automation might impact the jobs that will be available to students in the future. But it's clearly on Tucker's mind. In a statement, he noted half the jobs in the American economy could be done by robots, who are only getting more efficient and cheaper to produce. (In fact, some tasks teachers do now could be automated by 2030, my colleague, Ben Herold, reported earlier this week).

Maybe even more alarmingly: The average U.S. high school student graduates two-and-half years behind peers in top-performing countries, according to Tucker.

That wasn't always the case, he said. Fifty years ago, the U.S. had the best-educated workforce in the world. But we've been backsliding while other countries have zoomed ahead of us, he argued.

"The result is that millennial workers in the U.S. are now tied for the lowest level of basic skills in the industrialized world, having 50 years ago been the best-educated workers in the world," Tucker and Betsy Brown Ruzzi wrote in a policy brief "Message to America" released Thursday.

For more on the future of work, check out our previous coverage:


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