EDUCATION REINVENTED

The Financial Times (June 16, 2017, p. 9) writes about how high school students in the U.S.A. are helped to acquire skills that are marketable in industry. One in six workers in the country is unemployed or under-employed, while, paradoxically, more than 6 million jobs remain unfilled. Youth- and long-term joblessness is especially high. One reason for it is a “skills gap” – a discrepancy between what schools teach and what is required in the market. To bridge the gap the American IBM partners high schools infusing the school curricula with courses that develop the skills needed by the company. The focus is on the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). As a rule, students stay at a four-year senior high for another two years (“Six is the new four”) and get an associate’s degree in the end. Those who are gifted enough may complete the six-year program in four years. Such schools are called P-techs (an abbreviation of “Pathway into Technology). P-tech graduates are first in line for positions at IBM and other blue-chip partners like SAP, Cisco and Global Foundries, where many students have already done their internships.

A problem with the U.S. education is the lack of middle-market technical skills. Too many students graduate with heavy debts and useless degrees, but the huge “sub-BA” market does not necessarily require degrees. It requires SKILLS. Yes, in America, as in most countries across the world (Germany and Switzerland are, probably, exceptions), workforce training is viewed as a dumping ground for less fortunate students. However, hard realities of life dictate a fresh approach to vocational training. P-techs were first launched in 2011 in New York City, and now the model spread into 57 cities in six states serving 12,000 students, as well as being launched overseas in Australia and Morocco.

When I read such articles in the foreign press, I usually compare them with what is going on in my native Ukraine. Education is also re-shaped in this country. Of course, it’s still too early to speak of Ukrainian businesses partnering high schools: businesses are too weak to finance teaching at schools according to their industrial or commercial needs, schools are too conservative to overcome their “inertia of rest.” Something is certainly done: old syllabi are modernized, new courses are introduced. Next year Ukraine is going to participate in the Program for International Assessment of Students (PISA). The concept of “democratic” education is being more and more cultivated, e.g. closer co-operation of parents and teachers, less formal relationship between teachers and students, etc. But I am afraid that flying into a rage of “modernizing” and “westernizing” of Ukrainian education, the zealots may abandon traditional strengths of our educational system. And one of such strengths has always been the discipline of learning. A non-permissive teacher setting challenging (and often exacting) tasks for students, and demanding the timeliness and perfection of fulfilling those tasks has been considered a GOOD teacher in Ukraine. And not only in Ukraine. When I was teaching abroad (in the U.K. and, later, in the U.S.A.), some teachers and parents said that I was sort of tough in the classroom, but they agreed it was an advantageous side of my teaching (I was so much flattered then :-)).

Incidentally, toughness of teaching doesn’t exclude a teacher’s kindness towards students. It’s another question, how to achieve that happy blend of being uncompromising and remaining well-disposed towards kids. IMO, the more talented a teacher is, the happier that blend will be. And it hardly comes with a teacher’s degree. It’s a gift. A teacher must be born with it.

I must admit, I was rather disappointed when I read recently that there won’t be any grading in elementary schools, and in middle schools (not sure about senior highs) grades received will be a private matter of every student: a teacher will not be supposed to give grades “publicly” — for all in the classroom to hear. The approach can, as our Minister of Education says, relieve students of unnecessary stress and make the classroom atmosphere more relaxed. But… will it raise standards of education?

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