Does our educational system leave new graduates at a disadvantage? The U.S. educational system has long been considered one of the best in the world, but in recent years, it’s stagnated. According to the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) (a triennial global study), the U.S. was the lowest-performing industrialized country—below average in math, and only hovering around average in science and reading.
Middle of the road won’t cut it in this global economy. The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently ranked the U.S. as third on the Global Competitiveness Index, behind Switzerland and Singapore, pointing to the quality of education as one of the reforms needed if we’re going to improve. We risk slipping further if we don’t do something.
This issue goes beyond the “skills gap” we often decry. It highlights a disconnect between our failing educational system and the demands of the real world. If employers want to stay strong, they’ll need to step up and ensure our students have the skills they need for success.
The Educational System Needs to Adapt
There isn’t one single challenge that’s holding young Americans back, but it’s clear that our educational system needs to adapt to a changing world—and workplace. But why does that seem so difficult?
One issue is that there are different standards for core skills. Responding to the PISA report, Harvard professor Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance, said the variation between state and local educational systems means, “We sort of have an educational system where no one’s in control.”
In countries with a strong educational system, Peterson notes, students have to do well in specific courses if they want to go on to university. “We have a more ambiguous sense of what we want our high school students to learn in this country,” he said.
At the same time, experts recognize teaching styles need to change but acknowledge there isn’t one single solution.
Traditional education uses a relatively passive transmission of knowledge: The teacher creates the lesson plan, and students are expected to absorb and retain the information. Standardized tests help parents and teachers track progress and see how each student measures up against their peers.
Traditional teaching with standardized testing is supposed to provide a level playing field for all students but doesn’t account for individual skills or learning styles. Instead, it can put learning at risk by adding pressure to students and teachers to score well.
An alternative open-ended and self-directed method of learning is gaining traction as a more viable educational program, but that isn’t a perfect solution, either. If education is shaped solely by choice instead of by a standardized curriculum, we run the risk of having students left behind in critical areas of their education.
Until the educational system improves, American students will enter the workforce at a disadvantage—putting the onus on employers to help ensure, their employees have the skills they need to compete.
How to Meet the Demands of the Workplace
According to “The Bloomberg Recruiter Report: Job Skills Companies Want But Can’t Get”, strategic thinking, communication skills, creative problem-solving, and leadership skills are among the “less familiar, more desired” skills employers are seeking. Despite the number of people graduating from higher educational institutions, employers continue to complain about a shortage of these workplace competencies.
So here’s a thought: instead of waiting for the educational system to catch up, companies can begin to take proactive approaches. These initiatives might include:
- Internships: Internships are good for both businesses and students. Not only do they help build skills for future employees, young talent means new ideas. A firm that invests in these hands-on programs will gain a fresh perspective.
- Mentoring Programs: A well-implemented mentoring program creates a culture of learning where employees actively teach and explain best practices to each other. Mentoring programs help level the playing field, but it also helps people at all levels of the organization stay sharp.
- Scholarships: Scholarship programs incentivize students to reach their highest potential, regardless of the education system in which they’ve been brought up. They encourage a drive to succeed that can be impossible to measure in a qualitative way.
Some companies are also partnering with educational institutions to shape the curriculum to meet the needs of their industry better and decide which skills are immediately and tangibly valuable. According to the World Economic Forum, America’s innovation is already partly “driven by collaboration between firms and universities.” This sort of strategic engagement is more complicated but may yield better long-term results.
Embracing the Opportunities with the Challenges
Employers need to consider the shifting educational landscape and offer avenues for growth to their employees. By doing so, companies don’t just open the door to new demographics and potential talent that will provide them with direct benefits; they also broaden the scope of what we consider education and offer more cohesion between the educational system and the demands of the business world.