Tag Archives: economy

Kindness, innovation, and Tuesday’s election


I typically try to stay out of politics on this blog, given that I’m trying to work with a wide variety of teachers, administrators, policymakers, and community members to transform learning environments for students. But I also know that many educators woke up Wednesday morning in disbelief about the previous night’s election results. Somehow we elected a racist, xenophobic, conspiracist, serial groper of women to be the next leader of the world’s most powerful nation. Apparently it didn’t matter to enough voters that he has – among other things – mocked people with disabilities, celebrated the use of torture, used coded anti-Semitic language, insulted the parents of deceased soldiers, denied basic science when it comes to climate change, ruminated about the casual use of nuclear weapons, and praised one of the most reviled dictators in the world.

As someone who cares deeply about social justice issues, I was dismayed yesterday to hear a man behind me on the airplane say that he was ‘incredibly pumped about the GOP clean sweep – President, Senate, House, and Supreme Court – game, set, and match’ and that he was looking forward to rolling back ‘all of the BS that’s happened over the past 8 years.’ ‘Game, set, and match’: those are not words of unity and togetherness. Those are words of anger and power and revenge, words that I’m sure are frightening to women, persons of color, immigrants, and people of other faiths (just to name a few). Let’s be clear: this may be the reality in our country but the vitriolic hate and utter dismissal of basic human dignities that have been major political themes during this election represent the worst of human nature and American society. It shouldn’t be surprising that anyone who is not a conservative white male might be a little worried right now. When someone preaches so much hate for so many months, it’s an uphill road to now be a unifier.

Many educators are trying to figure out how to respond and what to say to students who are concerned and afraid. Or what to do when the hate comes into the school. Two thoughts come to me during these first days after the election…

First, we must continue to model the kindness, empathy, civility, acceptance, and inclusiveness that are the hallmarks of most schooling environments. Educators know how important it is to honor each and every child, regardless of skin color, religious faith, or family background. The hateful statements and physical violence that have sprouted during the past year are antithetical in every school and classroom that I know. We must continue to explicitly and visibly model for our communities (and the nation at large) how to treat each other with grace, respect, and dignity, particularly when we disagree with each other.

Second, one of the key themes of the election was the insurgence of non-college-educated white voters who feel that they are being left behind by our economy. ‘It’s about jobs’ has been a key mantra. But job growth since the recession has been quite steady:

2016-11-04 job growth chart

The challenge is that many (most?) of those new jobs are either very low-paying or in sectors for which a college degree is a foundational requirement. The job prospects for employees who aren’t able to engage in higher-level, non-routine mental work have been declining for decades now:


We also have to pay attention to college attendance and persistence. The majority of American workers do not have a college degree, and even younger graduates are not making it through college. For instance, here are the numbers from Colorado, despite our desire that high school graduates “demonstrate the knowledge and skills (competencies) needed to succeed in postsecondary settings”:

   74.6% Colorado high school graduation rate, Class of 2009
   52.6% acquired some kind of postsecondary credential by 2015 (page 22)
   64% their credential was a 4-year diploma
   (approximately; it’s probably a little lower than the 2011 rate; page 22)
   25% of the Colorado High School Class of 2009 has a 4-year degree by 2015

Schools are complicit with other societal institutions when it comes to individuals’ economic malaise and the inadequate preparation of our workforce. Research studies consistently show that most students spend about 80% to 85% of their school day doing routine mental work, despite the fact that the only substantive, long-term job growth in America is in professions that require non-routine mental work. Our dogged perpetuation of low-level learning environments helps foster economic insecurity and political revolts. While we continue to emphasize in our classrooms the kind of stuff that can be done in 3 seconds with voice-activated apps, search engines, or software like PhotoMath, our graduates are suffering. Schools are not just about preparing worker bees but they are necessary and vitally important components of our country’s workforce preparation pipeline. We have to own this as educators. And we must do better or we will continue to doom millions of graduates to prolonged economic hardship because they don’t have the preparation and the skills to do something different.

Schools aren’t preparing freelancers and entrepreneurs


[I’m back. I took an actual winter break. It was awesome. I highly encourage it!]

Freelancing is on the rise, with perhaps as many as a third of American workers now engaged in some kind of freelancing work. Of course this has enormous implications for overall employment, health benefits, and workforce and job stability. Dennis Yang, CEO of Udemy, notes that

this conversation will [soon] reach critical mass, especially around how freelancers continue to learn and upskill in such a fluid work environment. In the absence of corporate support, these independent workers need to keep hustling to stay ahead of the curve and prove they can out-innovate their peers. In short, as more companies choose to depend on contract workers for key parts of their business, those freelancers will see increasing competition for those gigs and, therefore, more pressure to differentiate themselves and their skills.

Are most schools helping students learn how to leverage their individual interests and skill sets to ‘out-innovate their peers’ and differentiate themselves from the crowd? Are most schools helping students learn how to adopt entrepreneurial mindsets, workflows, and financing techniques in order to be both self-sufficient and competitive in a highly-complex, rapidly-shifting work landscape? Are most schools teaching students how to ‘learn and upskill’ themselves so that they optimize their chances to be selected for the next gig that they’re seeking?


Are most schools still primarily running students through a ‘one size fits all’ model, assessing students in standardized ways, discounting students’ unique strengths and talents, and completely ignoring the economic and workforce realities into which they’re sending their supposedly-qualified graduates?


Image credit: 20100504-available-for-freelance, Chris Piascik

The declining economic value of routine cognitive work

Workforce data show that U.S. employees continue to do more non-routine cognitive and interpersonal work. [Note: these data tend to be fairly similar for most developed countries, not just the U.S.]

Fewer and fewer employment opportunities exist in America for both routine cognitive work and manual labor, and the gap is widening over the decades. Unless they’re location-dependent, manual labor jobs often are outsourced to cheaper locations overseas. Unless they’re location-dependent, routine cognitive jobs are increasingly being replaced both by cheaper workers overseas and by software algorithms.

What kind of schoolwork do most American students do most of the time? Routine cognitive work. What kind of work is emphasized in nearly all of our national and state assessment schemes? Routine cognitive work. For what kind of work do traditionalist parents and politicians continue to advocate? Routine cognitive work.


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Some information from Autor & Price (2013) that may be helpful…

  • Routine manual tasks – activities like production and monitoring jobs performed on an assembly line; easily automated and often replaced by machines; picking, sorting, repetitive assembly (p. 2)
  • Non-routine manual tasks – activities that demand situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and perhaps in-person interaction; require modest amounts of training; activities like driving a truck, cleaning a hotel room, or preparing a meal (pp. 2-3)
  • Routine mental tasks – activities that are sufficiently well-defined that they can be carried out by a less-educated worker in a developing country with minimal discretion; also increasingly replaced by computer software algorithms; activities like bookkeeping, clerical work, information processing and record-keeping (e.g., data entry), and repetitive customer service (pp. 1-2)
  • Non-routine mental tasks – activities that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion, and creativity; facilitated and complemented by computers, not replaced by them; hypothesis testing, diagnosing, analyzing, writing, persuading, managing people; typical of professional, managerial, technical, and creative professions such as science, engineering, law, medicine, design, and marketing (p. 2)

Which schools are the true ‘miracles?’


Let’s imagine that we lived in an era in which change was occurring incredibly rapidly. An era in which our information landscape was undergoing drastic transformations into new, previously-unimaginable forms. An era in which our economic landscape was destroying rock-solid, stable livelihoods due to threats from geographically-distant workers and/or devices that replaced not just human labor but also human cognition. An era in which our learning landscape was creating unprecedented powers and possibilities but also significant disruptions to deeply-entrenched institutions. An era which required ‘just tell me what to do’ learners and workers to be more autonomous and self-directed, that demanded that they be more divergent and unique rather than convergent and fungible. An era in which a premium was increasingly placed on adaptability, creativity, critical thinking, and collaborative problem-solving – all at a pace never seen before – just to make a basic living.

In this imagined era, would the ‘miracle schools’ touted by the media, policymakers, and educators be the ones that prepared kids to be successful on individually-completed, standardized assessments of low-level learning?

Image credit: Two of the tiny workers, U.S. National Archives

Do your graduates have a what-they-have-done file?

Shawn Cornally says:

I asked the lead tech developers of several Cedar Rapids companies what they look for when hiring, and they all responded with, “The applicant’s Github [open source] portfolio.”

Not their GPA.

Not their test scores or transcripts.

Their what-have-you-done files.

The only way a student can have a Github portfolio is if they have a project worth working on, and the only way they can have that is if they’ve had generative interactions with the greater community; a community who has a plethora of problems worth working on.

Providing real experience has become the task of the school, and it’s one that has barely been embraced.

via http://iowatransformed.com/2013/05/22/providing-students-with-hirable-experiences

Iowa’s anemic Internet access

3 Megabits per second (Mbps). That’s the peak download speed of Sprint’s 3G mobile phone service. That’s also how Iowa and the United States define ‘broadband’ Internet access: a minimum of 3 Mbps download speed and 0.75 Mbps upload speed. Only 66% of Iowans have access to even this minimal level of ‘broadband’ in their homes. Moreover, one out of every four Iowa businesses is not accessing so-called ‘broadband’ services.

Take a look the map below. See all of the areas that are light green, yellow, or tan? Those are areas for which the maximum – yes, maximum – advertised download speed (as collected by ConnectIowa) is 3 to 6 Mbps or less. That’s the same as Sprint’s 4G mobile phone service. And that’s maximum advertised speed, not even regularly available speed. Those of us with ‘broadband’ access know that these are very different.

Iowa Broadband Access 2013 05 21

According to Akamai, the average connection speed in the U.S. is 7.6 Mbps but the average speed for Iowa is only 6.0 Mbps. Out of 12 states in the Midwest, Iowa’s average Internet connection speed is 11th, better than only Kansas. Even worse, Iowa’s broadband adoption rate dropped 11% from 3rd quarter to 4th quarter in 2012, the only state with a quarterly loss greater than 10%. Most states had adoption rate gains, not losses.

When most of Iowa has anemic Internet access, that doesn’t bode well for economic viability. When most regions in Iowa have Internet access that at best is what we get on a smartphone, that’s not a platform for economic, workforce, and entrepreneurial success.

Today the Internet is essential infrastructure, supporting the ability of individuals and organizations to innovate, build, sell, and serve. Everything is moving to the Web but right now Iowa is far, far behind what it needs for a hyperconnected, hypercompetitive digital, global economy.

Want to stop Iowa’s ‘brain drain?’ Want to provide a ‘world class education’ for Iowa students? Want to make Iowa more entrepreneurial, innovative, and globally relevant? Fix this.

We need to foster a diversity of talents

First, much research has shown that what makes a nation or a community prosperous is a diversity of talents (Florida 2002; Chua 2007). Even honeybee colonies with more genetic diversity are more productive (Mattila and Seeley 2007). A society cannot rely only on one type of talent to meet the challenges of the sophisticated, complex, and ever-changing economy, which constantly needs innovations and new industries (Kane 2010). If America had produced just one kind of talent wherein all individuals possess the same skills and knowledge, we would not have Apple® or Google™ or Facebook, or the Internet for that matter.

Second, because of globalization and advancement in technology, today’s society has such diverse needs for different talents that any individual, no matter how unique he or she is, can make a contribution and be successful. While a Lady Gaga may have been of little use in the agricultural society when most people were worried about feeding themselves, today talents like hers are in great demand. Just look at the size of the entertainment industry. Hence, an individual does not have to be one of many and compete by becoming better than millions of others in a narrow spectrum of abilities.

Finally, by necessity, globalization compels us to be unique and different because of the entry of billions of individuals who may have the same abilities and demand less. In other words, if one American wants to compete with a Chinese or Indian person, he has to offer something qualitatively different to global employers (Pink 2005; National Center on Education and the Economy 2007).

Therefore a decentralized system with strong local control and professional autonomy is an effective way to cultivate the diversity of talents that will help keep a nation, a community, and an individual competitive. In contrast, a national common curriculum, enforced through high-stakes common assessment, is just the poison that kills creativity, homogenizes talents, and reduces individuality through an exclusive focus on the prescribed content and teaching-to-the-test by schools and teachers, as we have already seen with NCLB. There is no question that education should help develop some common basics for the purpose of citizenship, but that is the extent to which government can mandate. And for hundreds of years, despite the lack of a national curriculum, the decentralized education system has performed that function well.

Yong Zhao via http://zhaolearning.com/2012/04/24/mass-localism-for-improving-america%E2%80%99s-education

The percentage of low-skilled manufacturing jobs continues to decline

As McKinsey & Co. pointed out last month in its study on the global demand for high-skilled labor, the percentage of labor-intensive, or low-skilled assembly and factory line jobs declined by half since the 1970s;  low-skilled jobs as a percentage of all manufacturing positions declined by 29 percent, while the percentage of manufacturing jobs in capital- and knowledge-intensive areas – those requiring strong math, science, and computer language skills – have and will continue to increase.

RiShawn Biddle via http://dropoutnation.net/2012/07/30/why-algebra-matters-and-why-those-who-think-it-doesnt-are-wrong

Does the fate of America rest on how well our children bubble in answer sheets?

does the fate of the nation rest on how well 9- and 13-year-olds bubble in answer sheets? I don’t think so. Neither does British economist, S. J. Prais. We look at the test scores and worry about the nation’s economic performance. Prais looks at the economic performance and worries about the validity of the test scores: “That the United States, the world’s top economic performing country, was found to have school attainments that are only middling casts fundamental doubts about the value and approach of these [international assessments].”

Gerald Bracey via http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/standardized-tests/so-what-if-the-us-is-not-no-1.html