What the education secretary gets wrong about workforce training in public schools

In a speech last week to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made her latest pitch for a radical transformation in the nature of public schooling—one that would place vocational education front and center. “There are over seven million unfilled jobs in the United States,” she told her audience, because “there is a disconnect between education and the economy.” She declared that civic leaders need to “disrupt” education, or at the very least “rethink” it.

Over the past several years, DeVos has laid the groundwork for this position by telling a very particular story about the history of American education. Schools, she has argued, were modeled after factories, and “students were trained for the assembly line.” But as the economy shifted over time, schools failed to keep pace. As she has repeatedly insisted, schools remain “stuck in a mode” from 100 years ago.

The solution, then, is seemingly quite simple. Schools need to be overhauled so that they focus on preparing young people for the jobs of the future. According to DeVos, “You have to think differently about what the role of education and preparation is.”

If schools are out of date, it seems entirely reasonable to rethink what they do and how they look. But DeVos’s solution is misguided in part because it’s based on a fabricated story. The actual history of workplace training in American schools is far less convenient for her reform agenda.

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