Schools and Culture: Basic Skills and the Global Economy

Summary: Though we may be making grudging progress on the basic skills of reading, writing, and math, a recent article by Thomas Friedman begs the question, when we will finally be proficient in those basic skills areas, will the train already have left the station – will the world economy have so outstripped the old economy that our students will be crippled by their ignorance of global opportunities and the need to be entrepreneurs even as employees in this much expanded and increasingly imaginative setting?

Despite the continuing political battles over No Child Left Behind, the well targeted criticisms about its flawed goal setting process, and assorted wringing of hands in many quarters, I would say in my little corner of the world, in a crude sort of way, the targets and mandates of the Bush era act have bred improvement. In many quarters, though most schools are poised to be deemed failed because they haven’t met Annual Yearly Progress, test scores have none the less improved, just not as far as the NCLB mandated. By 2014, all students were to have been deemed proficient. Well, give me a break. We’re dealing with reality here.

In my school, through workmanlike if hierarchical leadership and intelligent acquiescence by teachers, we reached AYP in reading for all groups – low income, special education, the works. Good stuff.

Shortly after these results were announced, I read an article by Thomas Friedman in the Seattle Times (10/4/2011), he of the “flat” world thesis, which recognizes the role of technology in making the emerging global economy possible. In “How did the robot end up with my job?”, Friedman again turns his eye on the hyper connectivity of the new market place, particularly as it affects employees and aspirants to work.

He cites a website, freelancer.com, through which almost three million people world wide shop their wares, a large portion intellectual services, a good percentage offered by “hungry” Ph.D.’s

Increasingly in the new marketplace, “more products are designed everywhere, made everywhere, and sold everywhere” for, of course, everyone.

Nationally identified corporations are morphing into multinationals whose employees are from many countries, whose markets are in many countries, and whose vision and corporate identity have broadened to be global. And whose allegiance is ceasing to be to the country of origin, by the way. The applicant in India may be equally competent and significantly cheaper than his American counterpart. And I’m talking white collar, not only blue collar.

So suddenly I am back in my little enclave in the Pacific Northwest, one school district, one school successful in one basic way, and I experience a kind of walking nightmare for some of my students. While we focus so heavily, as we are motivated to do, on bringing all students up to a basic standard, the world around them, and particularly the economic world, is changing by such geometric progressions as to be unrecognizable from their provincial point of view, despite the relative global sophistication of our local economy. While they are learning to read and write and do math more proficiently, the world economy has moved several orders of magnitude and vision beyond those simple basic skills, and it is not clear that our students at all are being prepared for the fast changing entrepreneurial economy, and in fact world culture that is emerging. Will they emerge from the time capsule that is our school culture into a world that has passed them by?

Of course, many kids are well beyond basic skills, both in our school and elsewhere, and have parents and other adult influences that will mediate their successful entry into the global economy. But the basic skills movement has always been about those left behind, to their individual detriment and that of our economy, and has been an effort to raise those on the lower rungs economically to the level where they are job ready. But I wonder, will they be job ready for a job that no longer exists, because basic skills alone will no longer cut it? Are we, in effect, making false promises? Are we only teaching how to crawl?

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One Response to Schools and Culture: Basic Skills and the Global Economy

  1. Nicole says:

    I wonder then, perhaps this is an argument for more integrated or interdisciplinary education, that still teaches fundamentals. It seems to me the economy you describe is based on horizontal connections that break across traditional boundaries. So in teaching basic skills, can we at the same time teach creative thinking? Arguably the challenge of “thinking outside the box” can be done while still practicing basic skills. Also, teaching that reflects the global reality requires teachers who are savvy to that reality.

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