In the Sunday Washington Post reporter Anne Hull tells the moving, heart-breaking story of Tabitha Rouzzo, a hardworking, earnest, working class young woman, desperately trying to make a better life for herself in New Castle, Pa. The odds against Tabitha are steep. The Rust Belt is in a deep depression and finding well-paying work is nearly impossible; going to college is a dream. “This town is dragging everyone down,” Tabitha told Hull.
Students like Tabitha deserve a lot better. They deserve an education that prepares them for the 21st century, not the 19th century. The economy that supported the good people of New Castle is sinking fast, never to be restored.
A recent book, The New Geography of Jobs, observes this sad reality. Author Enrico Moretti writes about the “hollowing out of the American labor market” where “job opportunities for middle-wage, middle-skill white-collar and blue-collar workers have declined sharply.” Moretti describes how our economy is experiencing a long-term shift from manufacturing to what he calls “innovation,” the driver of prosperity is knowledge and ideas. One measure of this monumental transformation is the explosion of patent grants, says Moretti. In the last decade, patents have doubled from 400,000 per year to 800,000 and the trend continues on a steep incline.
Tabitha and other middle class, working class, and poor students are not being prepared for the “New Economy of Innovation.” And college attendance is no guarantee that graduates are prepared for the future. Today, the McKinsey Center for Government released a new report on education and employment. Worldwide, 75 million young people are unemployed. McKinsey reports that half of young graduates are “not sure that their post-secondary education has improved their chances of finding a job.” Colleges and universities appear to overrate the degree to which they prepare students for the life of work. According to McKinsey, “72 percent of educational institutions felt that their graduates were ready for the job market, but only 42 percent of employers agreed.”
As the English would say, this is a very sticky wicket. If college is financially out of reach for many middle class, working class, and poor kids, and if colleges and universities aren’t measuring up in preparing many of their graduates for success in the New Economy of Innovation, what is the path forward?
One reality-based and practical way forward is to rethink the American high school and to rethink our near obsession with single and simplistic measures of academic success. Holding the B.A. up as the only measure of academic success shuts out many, many students from non-affluent families from taking pride in their unique abilities and learning the 21st century skills that are required to thrive in a world of innovation, rapid change and uncertainty.
An example of how this might work is the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-Tech) that opened last year in Brooklyn. According to the New York Times, P-Tech “weaves high school and college curriculums into a six-year program tailored for a job in the technology industry.” By 2017 P-Tech will offer associates degrees in applied science in computer information systems and electromechanical engineering technology. The school’s curriculum was developed with IBM. Students are admitted by lottery; 88 percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. This is reform from the ground up. Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee are planning to open P-Tech type schools.
Six-year technical schools are not the only answer to giving students like Tabitha a decent shot at life, but it’s a strong start. It is one piece of a much larger puzzle we need to solve — not tomorrow, but today. We owe it to Tabitha.
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