I said I owed you one more disgruntled blog before I got “back to normal.” I just read in V.S. Naipul’s A Tour of the South that Anne Rivers Siddon once said something along the lines that there Southern madhouses were once filled with women who had been stifled.
Today people are self-stifled by a lack of public candor. In my preparation to tackle a full K-12 school to job or whatever-comes-next curriculum I have attended a lot of panels, meetings, and other public discussions. So far we have addressed to death all the problems, but not the solutions. So far, it seems to be all about the adults, all about saying the right things.
Thus far we have proven beyond a shadow of a boring doubt that we all care. But do we? Do we care enough to begin to “cut the crap” and get to the down and dirty candid part? Perhaps.
At the tail end of a recent meeting, I heard a little candor. A confession, “Well, I’m not supposed to say this, but…” But what? What are we waiting for? Another confession: “We could have a communication problem.” Indeed.
And yet, it was after the meeting formally concluded in the little knots of twos and threes where candor prevailed, at least to some degree. Instead of quoting or misquoting, I’ll just say it was along the lines of what these parents (now in their parent role and not in their official this or that role) feared for their children and themselves. Things like:
•Maybe four years of college isn’t essential
•I thought school was preparing them, not me
•I have not prepared them well enough to jump from the board of high school to what’s next
•If they get a college degree will they get a job using that education?
•Will they get a job at all?
•Will they be in debt up to their ears forever? Will I have to help, just when I have other kids moving on and mom and dad to care for?
And all this about kids who have attended good schools, have exceptional parents, and live in an exceptional community. On this day, I could only imagine what other kinds of parents were wondering.
The cracks in the candor must come. It is only coincidence that I am working on a book for adults about the change in the classroom over the last 100 years. A byproduct of my research has been a view of a pretty straight line from a horrible educational life to the kind of education I like to think I got in the 1960s, when I graduated from high school in Atlanta: A great one! What has happened since those post-WWII and Civil Rights years confounds me.
By the time my sister, four years younger, had graduated from the same school, some of the “harder” classes or requirements were gone. By the time my own children graduated from high school, they had a good education, but I can’t say for sure that they had had civics, Latin, political science, and an enforced four years of English, math, and more.
In school I had hours of homework, 24 page term papers, and it was a “no excuse” world. The dog ate my homework had not come into play. I lived during a time when even kids cared about current events, the aftermath of the Holocaust and WWII, the assassination of our president, and Vietnam. Yet we still had time to go to prom, work after school jobs, do our homework, and fall in love with the Beatles. We did not get self-esteem bumper stickers, we had home chores, and we did not, in general, talk back.
I cannot say that we had great careers curriculum, or counselors; actually I recall neither. Nor do I recall my parents babysitting me about my post-high school education or expectations. I would be on my own, that’s all I knew. There were no helicopter parents. There were vocational schools. There were jobs. You picked some course of study (not everyone went to college by any means) and you extrapolated your studies and your experience (whether in afterschool jobs or at a “real” job) and did what you had to do. You got by. You survived on your own two feet; sometimes, sooner or later, you thrived. You did not go back home to mom and dad; “who would want to?” was the prevailing thought, if such a thing was considered at all. We wanted to be adults.
My observation is that kids are not the problem; adults are. Adults who have let things get this bad; there is plenty of blame to go around. We can’t help the economy, but, hey, when could we ever or when will we ever. No excuses, remember?
I asked a simple question at the end of one panel: “It seems to me that community colleges/tech schools are one great stepping stone from high school to job. So why did one girl who came to me with a two year degree apply having learned graphic design on software that had been obsolete for five years? I could not hire her.”
[Play the dum dum de dum Jeopardy tune here.] Finally, a waffling answer: “Well, maybe they didn’t know.”
“Who? The people who get paid to know?”
“Well, maybe they didn’t have funds to get new software?”
“Who? The people who took this young girl’s hard-earned money in exchange for a marketable job skill?”
We are all afraid to Point the Finger. After all, I get paid by school systems—why would I go out of my way to offend them? But now it is not about blame; we do not have time for that. It is about candor and Pointing the Finger because IT’S ALL ABOUT THE KIDS!
What helps kids is to have educational and home training regarding their lives' possible missions, their lives' potential contributions, and how to prepare for them. Even little kids are excited about such things, though their list may be limited to firefighter or schoolteacher; that’s ok.
I remember my first job and not knowing what an invoice was, or a bill of lading. I was totally (enter bad word here) that no one, not at home, not at school had—I suddenly realized—taught me anything about work: not the vocabulary, not the so-called (but not by me!) soft skills, not anything. So in addition to having to learn my job I had to learn all about work on my own, while feeling like an idiot and a dumb idiot at that, and making unnecessary mistakes and missteps, and growing in a lack of confidence and embarrassment for way too long.
What a disservice!
Today it’s much worse. One panel focused on work ethic: “Kids have none.” “Work eight hours?” “70% is good enough in their minds.”
A lack of a good education is a dangerous thing. I know of a man who was turned down for job after job because a high school grad with a new job as a file clerk had filed a horrid psychiatric report in his file instead of where it belonged, in the file of a man who had an almost identical name. (So, uh, presumably someone hired him.) Was this kid lazy, could not spell, thought close counted? Were they was he in a hurry to get home, texting while he worked, did he have his Ipod buds in his ears?
What we need is for not another year or school system or state full of school kids to get by another year without an appropriate amount of work education. What we need is for kids to understand WHY they study each class—how eventually that will help them in the real world. What we need is for kids to see a much wider array of opportunity: there is no shame in voc-ed, in starting in community college, in working or volunteering for a year to see where your interests lie, in working your way through school, in starting a business, whether you work for mom or dad, or, uh, hunker down in your garage and start a computer company.
What would keep kids motivated to finish school is a smorgasbord, a wild array, a dramatic rendering of all the opportunity to show their passion, to change the world, to use their education and skills to make a living and become a good citizen. This array exists: the world of work in the future is filled with jobs that may not always have a name right now, but that’s ok. Put the word nano in front of anything and kids will get your drift.
It’s ok for kids to change their minds and their goals; what’s not ok is for them to have anything less than many goals to pick from. We could help them more if we knew more. It came up in one meeting that a Georgia business had 100 welding jobs it was willing to pay $75,000 a year plus benefits for, but could find no skilled labor.
(We won’t even touch on the discussion of what businesses do when they can’t find trained labor for the jobs they have: they don’t even come here or they leave—plenty of candor there!)
So where are the broad stroke arrays of, “Hey, kids, here are the things you can aspire to!"—and there be something for every child?
Where are the business people going into the schools to explain? Where are the human resources folks going into the schools to tell what they’ll be hiring soon? Where are the internship matchups, the apprenticeships, the part time jobs? Where are the kids who even want these? (Another problem.)
Where is the curriculum? (Oh, yeah, I gotta get out of here and get back to it!) Where are the parents demanding such a thing!
Where are the companies demanding local community colleges and tech schools change fast enough to help them, and, where are those schools as far as going to the companies and saying, “Tell us and help us so we can help you.” Where are the colleges saying, “Don’t send us anymore students who need a year of remedial classes”? Is everyone off sitting on or listening to a panel about What is Wrong?”
It’s all about the kids. It must be. It should be. The time for talk is over. The other day I wrote a one page “We’ve got Internships!” and took it to everyone in my office complex. June 1, I meet with my new Georgia Careers Curriculum Team.
Next week, I plan to poll every parent in my company to ask what they want their kids to know.
And “soft skills?” I don’t know what all we will do in our curriculum, but we will definitely not call ESSENTIAL skills “soft”…no: It’s all hard ball and uphill from now on. Let’s give kids plenty to be excited about, plenty to chow down on, and let’s quit misleading them, and ourselves, about what’s at stake.