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John Florez: Create schools for a digital world

Published: Saturday, Feb. 23 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Today, there is a mismatch between the skills taught in schools and those needed in the new economy. During the past 30 years, the skills required in the new economy have changed radically, but the skills taught in schools have changed very little.

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A high school diploma is no longer a ticket to the middle class.

Today, there is a mismatch between the skills taught in schools and those needed in the new economy. During the past 30 years, the skills required in the new economy have changed radically, but the skills taught in schools have changed very little. "If schools gave tests which measured students' reading, writing and math skills against employers' requirements, parents would see the problem and demand solutions," (Murnane & Levy, "Teaching the New Basic Skills," 1996). Utah lawmakers want to address that.

Thirty years ago, "A Nation at Risk" report warned us that because of our faltering schools, America would be in danger competing in a changing economy. Since then, with convergence of the information and technology revolution and globalization, a new and flat world has been created where everyone is connected and a new economy has suddenly appeared. Many of the good paying jobs have disappeared, or are being done by anyone around the world. Sixty-five percent of today's third grade students will be doing jobs that have yet to be created.

While the world has changed exponentially, our schools are changing incrementally. However, we keep listening to those who tell us our schools are doing better and all that is needed is more money. The problem with education is a structural one, and must change to meet the demands of the global economy.

Today's high-performance workplace created by the demands of the new economy requires a new set of skills and knowledge workers. In 1992, former Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole asked employers to indicate the skills needed for the new workforce. They listed the following: basic mathematics and problem-solving, and reading abilities at levels much higher than high school graduates now attain; a good work ethic; the ability to work in groups and to make effective oral presentations; and, the ability to use personal computers to carry out simple tasks like word processing.

Since then the demands of a more digital economy are now greater, higher knowledge and skills are required, as is imagination, innovation, creativity and "crowd sourcing" — the ability to problem solve with others. Youth born after 1985 when the World Wide Web was created grew up in digital world. However, those over age 40 are still maintaining schools that have no relevance to what today's students need to succeed. "Simply put, we can't keep preparing students for a world that doesn't exist. We can't keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills they're developing on their own" (Virginia Hoffman, The New York Times, July 7, 2011).

In preparing our children and adults to succeed in an ever-changing world, tomorrow's education system ought to be one that is seamless and allows them to advance at their own pace. Citizens and lawmakers ought to think new, learn from kids who are growing up in a totally foreign world than the one of today's adults who learned in schools with clocks, bells and lined-up desks designed for an industrial economy.

Schools for the new economy must focus on having students learn critical thinking skills to create, imagine and innovate, that will require generating a culture where teachers become facilitators. Some are now using "classroom flipping," where students watch lectures at home and do homework in school. It allows teachers to help those who need it and allows students to work and learn together, just as in today's workplace.

It's a new world and we must see it as an opportunity for our Utah lawmakers to help the next generation write their ticket to the middle class.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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