Thursday, October 15, 2009

Predicting the Future

            It has always been difficult to be predictive about the necessary skills and talents that students will need when they leave school. Just ask any one of my generation that was subjected to the requisite computer class involving Tandy Radio Shack computers, daisy wheel printers, and the art of DOS programming. Unfortunately, this is a skill that I have yet to take full advantage of, despite my mastery. In this age of globalization and incredibly fast-paced advances in technology, it has never been more challenging to predict where our children will be in ten years, or what skills they will need. One thing is for certain, though, we are facing greater and greater competition from abroad and if we are not careful, we will, as a country, fall farther behind.
            It is, indeed, a different world than the one we grew up in. As author Jerry Larsen points out, the world in which our students will enter will be one in which the top 10 in-demand jobs were not even created when they were born. In terms of competition, the top students in China and India will outnumber all students in North America. Further, one week of the New York Times will contain more information than the average eighteenth century citizen was exposed to in their lifetime. In short order, the number one English speaking country in the world will be China.[i] The increase in global competition, the access to technology, and the rapid pace of change, all make our ability to be predictive that much more challenging, but that much more important. One thing that is for certain is that the key to our success lies in our educational policies, but the forecast, there, is challenging as well.
            As Patrick Callahan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said, “The strength of America is in the population that’s closest to retirement, while the strength of many countries against which we compare ourselves is in their younger population.” Our local trends are certainly as troubling as the national trends appear to be, if not worse. One international assessment measured the performance of fifteen-year-olds in 41 countries and the United States placed twenty-fourth for math literacy. In 2007, thirty-three percent of high school students in California failed to graduate in a state that produced Silicon Valley[ii].
            It is no surprise that I believe that the solution lies in the increased investment and reform in education and fortunately, the outlook for our students is bright. This past year, for example, the seventh graders that qualified to take the SATs or ACTs placed well above the average for high school seniors, more than half of the graduating class received national recognition in their foreign language, 80 percent of our students scored at the seventh stanine or above on all sections of their ERBs (Educational Records Bureau) and the average Harding student was reading four grade levels above average.
            These are positive benchmarks, but there are so many intangibles that are harder to quantify that involve leadership, citizenship, and character and according to our area high schools, our alumni are thriving in those areas as well. They report that our students are immersed in student government, athletics, and the arts, in addition to their academic lives.
            While we will not be able to precisely predict the future for these young people, we will make some assumptions. The study of a foreign language, for example, has never been more important, and a mathematical mind will certainly lead to more and more opportunities in emerging fields. Whether a person blogs, emails, or tweets, they will certainly need the ability to write creatively and thoughtfully and be able to think critically. And in all areas, the United States will always need graduates with leadership and interpersonal communication skills. As educators, the constant review and assessment of what we teach, and how, and what skills our students will leave us with, will be our charge.
Who knows, maybe we’ll have an alum discover the next DOS program.

[i] Larsen, Jerry, Transformational Leadership, Independent School Magazine, Spring 2009
[ii] Kao, John, Innovation Nation, Free Press, New York, 2007.