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Burying a Generation in Debt and Forfeiting its Talent

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

What follows is the text of my lead-in to a Thoughtexchange Virtual Event on June 5, 2019 entitled “Helping Students Find Their WHY.” The event was hosted by Te’s Angela Garinger. I explained why transformation in public education is needed. Then Ed Hidalgo, Chief Innovation and Engagement Officer for the Cajon Valley Union School District near San Diego, CA explained how this transformation can be accomplished starting in Kindergarten and the primary grades with their remarkably popular World of Work program.

Phil Jarvis

In projects I led early in my career I saw my goal as getting good career information into the hands of counselors so they could help students make good choices. A few years ago I realized that, no matter how good the tools and information available to them, there will never be enough counselors to provide the substantial support that ALL students need. The current ratio of counselors to students nationally is 1:464. Most counselors can only focus on career counseling after they have dealt with the personal, social, mental health, and academic advising challenges of their students. But, in my opinion, helping students prepare for successful lives beyond school needs to be the core mission of public education and everyone’s job.

Why do I say that?

  • U.S. student loan debt has reached $1.5 trillion. That’s bigger than credit card debt. Only mortgage debt is greater.

  • BUT …. 6 out of 10 students who start a 2- or 4-year public or private college program will NOT have a degree after six years (National Student Clearinghouse Research Centre, 2019). The U.S. has the highest post-secondary drop-out rate of any advanced country. So, almost two thirds of the young people carrying student loan debt have no degree or credential to show for their debt. Worse, they have lost precious years and they are no closer to discovering good career pathways with employers who need their unique strengths. They got the debt, but they didn’t get the sense of direction and purpose, the social and emotional skills, the financial management skills, the character or resilence to graduate and get launched in a career that assures them a good return on their financial investment.

  • What a terrible disservice we do in insisting that, whether they have career goals that excite them or not, students really must go to college immediately after high school if they want a chance at a good life. They will definitely need some credential beyond high school, but college is but one of many possible learning pathways to career success. And college can happen at any point, or multiple points, during a career.

  • 20% of students in Switzerland go directly from secondary school to university. The rest go into their choice of 260 paid apprenticeship pathways in Grade 10. They graduate with a good job in a company they know and like, with zero debt and a positive savings account. Plus, their pathway to college remains open to them anytime.

  • Our economy is at the lowest level of unemployment in decades. Under 4% overall. But youth unemployment is at 9% and youth underemployment is close to 40%. Youth underemployment in Switzerland is 2%!

  • A lot of graduates, let alone drop-outs, are in low-paying, low-security, low or no benefits jobs unrelated to their interests, skills, and studies. Many are demoralized, even depressed trying to imagine how will they pay off their loans, get out of their parent’s basement, and begin a happy, fulfilling, independent, and productive adult life.

  • Disconnected youth are not the only victims. The prosperity of their families and communities suffers too. They can’t buy cars or homes, build families, and get actively engaged in their communities. Employers don’t get full benefit from their potential contribution. The human and economic cost of having so many young people failing to launch from school to good, middle-class careers is staggering, and we ALL pay!

How must education change?

  • School curriculum is about preparing students for the next level of education. The assumption seems to be that when their heads are full enough of arbitrary, age-based, prescribed curriculum they’ll be ready to take on adult life. The sad reality is that most are not prepared!

  • Student engagement plummets from about 80% in early primary school to 40% or less in high school. Why? Students seldom get an answer that satisfies them to the question, “Why do I need to learn this?” It’s no wonder that employee engagement among adults is about 33%, disengagement is at 51%, and active disengagement (sabotage) is at 16% (Gallup, 2019). Clearly, most of today’s adults were not career-ready when they entered the working world.

  • Neuroscience tells us that when young brains are stressed, tired, hungry, afraid, disengaged or bored, they simply cannot learn. If they do, it doesn’t stay in their heads for long.

  • Helping students discover their unique strengths, find their WHY, and learn what they need to learn to prepare for the life they want should be job 1 for all educators, supported by parents, and the entire community.

  • Every student has the potential to be a prodigy in something, even those considered learning-challenged or behaviourally incorrigible. We have to provide the understanding, acceptance, support, encouragement, and love students need to find their something, their purpose, their WHY.

  • Student engagement and achievement increase when they are exposed to adults in jobs where they deal with issues students care about or who are in careers they find intriguing.

  • When students begin to have a vision of possible futures that excite them, anything becomes possible. Engagement sky rockets. Their young ‘plastic’ brains grow by leaps and bounds. Behavior problems diminish. Teacher satisfaction escalates, as does parental engagement.

Now I ask you, who would NOT want to transform education to make preparing students for successful lives beyond school its core mission?

Helping students find their WHY can begin in Kindergarten, or even before. Amazing educators and communities already are in communities across the country. The Cajon Valley Unified School District just east of San Diego is an excellent example. Listen to my friend Ed Hidalgo who is leading their remarkably popular, district-wide World of Work initiative.

See a recording of the Te event.

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