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Guest Opinion: Changing times call for a new approach to education

By Randy Ramos

Sometimes events force our hand and push us to take a quantum leap into the future. For America’s education system, this is one of those times.

We’ve known for a while that how we prepare young people for the workforce needs rethinking. Over the past few decades, technology has accelerated rapidly. Employer needs have changed, at lightning speed, alongside them. Schools have worked valiantly to make the needed transition. But now there’s a new sense of urgency.

COVID-19 and its ongoing fallout have exposed serious vulnerabilities in the current system. We’re now in an economic climate that’s generating massive budget cuts in public education and causing more families to wonder how they’ll ever pay for college.

In a way, the pandemic has been the final ingredient in a perfect storm – one that should inspire education leaders, business leaders and others to come together and search for solutions.

As we navigate this time of intense transition, we’d be smart to take a step back and ask: What can we learn from what we’re going through right now? How can we optimize the high school years? How can we better prepare our young people for the work world of the future?

Based on my collaborative work with industry, government and academia, I have my own ideas about how all the pieces could fit together. I believe the education system that gets the best results for everyone will likely feature a) a much greater emphasis on middle and high school career training and b) a hybrid approach to in-person classroom and distance learning.

For middle, high and post-secondary students, career skills development along a pathway to employment is essential. While in school, that pathway needs to provide achievement credentials that can be applied to continued/advanced education and/or employment opportunities. Both could have a “laddering” model.

Increasingly, the workplace demands a “just-in-time” skill set. Technology changes are outpacing academic churn and that’s creating a worrisome skills gap. High schools need to make sure the skills they’re teaching students are the ones that matter in the work world. That means partnering closely with industry to ensure that curriculum is truly up-to-the-minute.

The good news is we already have a great infrastructure in place. Career and technical education (CTE) programs are already well established (and increasingly popular) in school systems across the U.S. In fact, they are now a major pillar of the American education system. CTE is the perfect entry point for the next generation of classroom learning.

We just need to make sure to maximize our CTE courses. To be at their most effective, they need to meet certain well-established criteria. For example, they need to be connected to viable industries and highly marketable, future-facing skills. Real-world business and industry need to be heavily involved.

Programs should feature a mix of classroom instruction, online learning and hands-on experience. Now that “virtual work” has become mainstream in the business world, education won’t be far behind. But it’s important that the online component is teacher-led, not student-led. As we saw with our COVID-19 “crash course,” many kids need the structure of a teacher showing up live, on screen, at a predictable time of day.

Students should be able to graduate with very specific skills and a certificate that’s highly valuable in the workplace. More students are looking for ways to avoid unsustainable levels of college debt. The model that I’m describing here allows those with the right certifications to easily make $30,000 or more per year straight out of high school.

So how do we move forward? It’s important to roll things out in the right order: First, we must get the program and content right and make sure classes are tied to viable industries. Then, we must get the methodology right so it provides an effective learning experience. Finally, we need to infuse it into existing school programs.

If we’ve learned one thing from this pandemic, it’s that the education field is made up of smart people who genuinely care about their students. It’s a heartfelt thing. They are deeply committed to finding a way forward that makes sense for everyone and sets students up for success. It’s that attitude that gives me a lot of hope for the future of education.

Randy Ramos is CEO of Global Business Solutions, Inc. and a speaker on cybersecurity, learning technologies and accelerating competencies in the competitive global economy.

FOR MORE COLUMNS AND LETTERS TO THE EDITOR, CHECK OUT OUR OPINION SECTION HERE.

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