The True and the New

Winter 2017

By Donna Orem

During his middle- and high-school years, my son attended the Edmund Burke School, a progressive, independent school in Washington, DC — and a member of NAIS. The school was a wonderful match for him, and he thrived during his years there. My family experienced the school as a warm and inviting learning community in which there was room for all types of student passions. As my son marched closer to his senior year, I noted a change in the tone and tenor of the community. Anxiety about colleges, employment, and success in life seeped into daily life. Parental class meetings began to veer from in-depth discussions about learning to debates about college acceptance rates, SAT prep, and how to gain more one-on-one time with the college counselor.

At one particularly intense parents’ meeting, a fellow parent, whose son was a bandmate of my son’s and a fellow music and art devotee, leaned over to me and said, “Aren’t you glad we are parents of underachievers?”

Even among this laid-back group of parents, there was an acceptance of the current ingrained cultural bias that sees the arts collectively as a less rigorous and perhaps less success-oriented college and career path. The school, however, sent a different message to my son; it worked hard to cultivate his passions around the arts and music, and opened for him a world of possibility about where those passions could take him.

He graduated from Edmund Burke in 2007. Since then, market pressures on education have grown more intense, driven primarily by a volatile economy. More and more parents and students alike worry that a general education — especially one steeped in the arts and humanities — will not prepare students for the workforce or guarantee employment. These worries, coupled with the loss of school funding postrecession, have affected school curriculum at all levels. One well-documented result is that public school districts have cut music, arts, and language programs or are charging fees for them.

Although there is no comprehensive study of shifts in music, arts, and language programs in independent schools over the past decade, we do know that independent schools also face intense market pressures to deliver on student outcomes in college and beyond. If anything, the parental anxiety runs even higher in independent schools. This worry and the media attention highlighting the value of majors in the STEM fields have driven some independent schools to ramp up these programs. Many independent schools have chosen to go the STEAM route — science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math — noting the importance of art and design in the 21st-century workplace. The Rhode Island School of Design has championed this movement, noting on its website that although “innovation remains tightly coupled with science, technology, engineering, and math, art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century just as science and technology did in the last century.”

On the higher education front, we see a rise in interest in business, technology, and health-science majors. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the most popular majors of the 1.84 million bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2012–13 were in the fields of business (361,000), and health professions and related programs (181,000). With scores of students graduating with significant and sometimes overwhelming debt and fears of finding a job in a postrecession economy, many students choose not to follow their passions, but rather pursue a practical course of study that seems most likely to lead to employment.

But is that the way the job market is playing out?

A number of research studies have probed the college-to-work trajectory and presented some surprising findings. The 2011 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, first suggested the lack of rigor in colleges today, particularly in business-related fields, and the effect that it’s having on students’ lives after graduation. Their research findings noted that students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work, and communications showed the smallest gains. This is a compelling piece of research, given that employers today note that too many students today are just not prepared for the workforce when they graduate from college. In a recent survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, grads and employers rated their preparedness on key workplace skills. While grads gave themselves fairly high marks, employers gave grads relatively low ratings in each area, with awareness/experience of diverse cultures outside the U.S. receiving the lowest rating (see sidebar).

In an interview discussing his own research on preparation for employment, the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School Professor Peter Cappelli comments, “The thing that I found most surprising and disappointing is how messed up the system is and the extent to which kids are borrowing enormous amounts of money and going into debt chasing what they think are job opportunities that may or may not be there years in the future. I think the focus on very practical majors is ending up really turning around to bite people.”

Thus far, Cappelli’s research has driven him to the conclusion that there’s an emerging model where employability after graduation is driven by circumstances that are based more on internships than on a person’s major in college. He also notes that there is a growing trend for employers to offer intense training courses to give recent college graduates work experience in a field in which they never majored in college or know nothing about. Another study highlights the value of acquiring strengths in social skills in addition to the hard sciences. Catherine Weinberger, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studies government data on high school students and the incomes they earn later in life. Her findings indicate that “people with balanced strengths in social and math skills earn about 10 percent more than their counterparts who are strong in only one area.”

And, the workforce itself is beginning to shift in the way it values certain skill sets. For example, the tech industry is becoming one of the largest employers of liberal arts majors, understanding that they need people who can connect and communicate with customers as much as they need engineers to create the products. A fascinating new book, The Second Machine Age, by MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, argues that today we are coming into an age similar to that of the automobile revolution of the 1920s. Back then, there was a growing need for people with skills to help others understand how the car could fit into their everyday lives. The authors predict that “today’s tech wave will inspire a new style of work in which tech takes care of routine tasks so that people can concentrate on what they do best — generating creative ideas and actions in a data-rich world.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics supports this forecast by noting that each new wave of tech will create demand for more people-oriented talent, such as trainers, coaches, marketers, and salespeople. They predict that by 2022, one million more Americans will enter the workforce as educators and another 1.1 million in sales jobs. Interestingly, they forecast that software engineer ranks will grow at a much slower pace.

Sorting out the demands of college, the workforce, and the market can be daunting for independent schools trying to stay true to their missions and best serve children. In my experience, NAIS-member schools try to steer clear of the latest fads in curriculum, understanding that they are preparing children for a world that is largely unknown and constantly changing. That doesn’t mean that they ignore the world around them. Some schools, as noted, are experimenting successfully with STEM and STEAM programs. Others are teaching coding, developing makerspaces, creating internship programs, connecting students with professionals in various fields, and establishing international partnerships to foster a global perspective. At the same time, schools are working hard to instill the sort of skill set that research tells us is most valuable for life success. The most successful schools I’ve seen, however, keep a laser focus on the learners themselves. Among other things, they help students:

  • harness and nurture their passions;
  • know themselves and their strengths and challenges;
  • see that life is more about the journey than the destination;
  • map out their own opportunities;
  • fail and recover and grow; and
  • engage in the community, but question the status quo.

As noted, my son graduated from high school in 2007. This may have been one of the difficult years for students to head off to college or look for jobs. So I give a lot of credit to his school for helping him engage in his passions and develop the skills needed to succeed. This has enabled him to make his own opportunity by finding an intersection of his love of art and music in the restaurant/entertainment industry. Today he works as a chef and performs in a number of bands.

Without question, these are fascinating and challenging times for schools. I, for one, appreciate the way independent schools are both willing to experiment and improve their programs while never losing track of the core of a quality education.

Donna Orem
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is president at NAIS.