In his piece, Zhao argues, as I and many others have, that labor markets are increasingly global, so that people at any given skill level are competing with others, all over the globe, with similar skills. The result, is that those with a given set of skills who are willing to work for less than others with the same set of skills will typically be hired to do it, leaving those charging more without work. And he then asks, how then can workers in high wage countries compete without substantially lowering their wages, and therefore their standard of living?
He also notes, as others have, that more jobs are being automated out of existence than are being exported to low cost countries. It is the jobs that mostly require routine skills that are first to be automated.
Clearly, the workers in high labor cost countries will be able to hold on to their standard of living only if they can add some value that their competitors cannot. Zhao agrees that the thing they must be able to add is the capacity to create the future, the capacity for creativity and innovation, as well as a related set of skills in the arena of empathy and play. He also agrees that, in the world our children are likely to become adults in, they will need to be much more familiar with the way people far from the United States live and think.
So far, we are in agreement.
But Zhao then takes an interesting leap. He points out that we do not—indeed cannot—know what work will be available when today's infants leave college and enter the workforce. And he points out that, in global markets, small niches in percentage terms will still generate very large markets in absolute terms, and he concludes from this that that the future will belong to those who can invent new solutions for niche markets, people with great creative and entrepreneurial abilities who do not need to know a little about a lot, but rather a lot about a little. The implication we are apparently meant to draw from these statements is that the Common Core is too narrow and rigid for the future our children will face, that we need a non-standard education for a non-standard, creative, unknowable future where little niches, not mass markets and mass market thinking, will reign.
This kind of thinking, is to my mind, seductive, but I cannot agree. It is now more important than ever to figure out what all young people need to know and be able to do. The literature is clear. Truly creative people know a lot and they have worked hard at learning it. They typically know a lot about unrelated things and their creativity comes from putting those unrelated things together in unusual ways. Learning almost anything really well depends on mastering the conceptual structure of the underlying disciplines, because, without that scaffolding, we are not able to put new information and skills to work. Zhao says that we will not be competitive simply by producing a nation of good test takers. That is, of course, true. Leading Asian educators are very much afraid that they have succeeded in producing good test takers who are not going to be very good at inventing the future. But that does not absolve us of the responsibility for figuring out what all students will need to know to be competitive in a highly competitive global labor market, nor does it absolve us of the responsibility to figure out how to assess the skills we think are most important.
It is true that the future will be full of jobs that do not exist now and challenges we cannot even imagine yet, never mind anticipate accurately. But, whatever those challenges turn out to be, I can guarantee you that they will not be met by people without strong quantitative skills, people who cannot construct a sound argument, people who know little of history or geography or economics, people who cannot write well.
Zhao grew up in a country in which the aim was not learning but success on the test. There was wide agreement that the tests were deeply flawed, emphasizing what Mao called "stuffing the duck"—shoving facts and procedures into students—in lieu of analysis, synthesis and creativity. But few wanted to change the system, because the tests were one of the few incorruptible parts of a deeply corrupt system. So Zhao is very much aware of the consequences of a rigid system set to outdated standards. But that is not the problem in the United States. We don't suffer from ancient standards wildly out of tune with the times, enforced by tests that are no better. We suffer from lack of agreement on any standards that could define what all students must know and be able to do before they go their separate ways. We suffer in a great many schools from implicit standards that translate into abysmally low expectations for far too many students.
Without broad agreement on a well-designed and internationally benchmarked system of standards, we have no hope of producing a nation of students who have the kind of skills, knowledge and creative capacities the nation so desperately needs. There is no substitute for spelling out what we think students everywhere should know and be able to do. Spelling it out is no guarantee that it will happen, but failing to spell it out is a guarantee that we will not get a nation of young people capable of meeting the challenges ahead.
Zhao apparently believes that standards mean standardization and standardization would inevitably lead to an inability to produce creative solutions to the problems the workforce will face in the years ahead. That could certainly happen. But it need not happen.
Taking a page from my friend Will Fitzhugh, if it were up to me, every high school student would have to produce a fifteen to twenty page history research paper in order to graduate, a research paper that demonstrated a reasonable command of the relevant historical facts, the ability to organize the material in a logical and compelling way, the ability to make and to critique a compelling argument, the ability to synthesize material from multiple sources in an original way and the ability to analyze the forces at work in the historical arena being described.
What I just described is a standard. But it need not—indeed should not—lead to standardized, cookie-cutter research papers. Nor will it ever go out of fashion. Students ought to be able to demonstrate the kinds of skills and knowledge I just described no matter which new jobs spring up out of nowhere twenty years from now. Being able to do what I just described will diminish no one's creativity. Nor will it dim their entrepreneurial spirit.
It is simply not true that our inability to predict the jobs people will have to do in the future and the demand of creative, entrepreneurial young people relieves us of the obligation to figure out what skills and knowledge all young people need to have before they go their separate ways, or the obligation to translate that list of skills and knowledge into standards and assessments that can drive instruction in our schools.
This piece originally appeared in Valerie Strauss' The Answer Sheet on washingtonpost.com.