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Are schools preparing students for the new workforce?
The U.S. education system hasn't been revamped in over 100 years. Can it prepare kids for a high-tech world? - photo by Lane Anderson
Will there be jobs for college grads in the future and if so, which jobs?

Fear has mounted in the wake of sluggish post-recession job growth that has not treated college grads well. A recent study by Georgetown University shows unemployment among college grads was at 7.5 percent in 2012, only 2.5 percent better than the rate for non-graduates.

Paranoia is also fueled by the automation of jobs including white collar-jobs like secretarial, bookkeeping, and paralegal work which, economists say, will only increase. Research from Duke and the University of British Columbia shows that jobs that consist of routine tasks dropped dramatically by 25 percent during the recession, and they're not coming back.

These twin phenomena have policymakers, educators and students alike scrambling to figure out which jobs will be in demand in the near future but Greg Whiteley says that's the wrong way to look at the problem and that we are asking all the wrong questions.

Whiteley is director of Most Likely to Succeed, an education documentary that asks: Why has our education system stayed the same while our economy has drastically shifted with technology? The film kicks off with a brief history lesson of the U.S. education system, which was largely geared toward producing factory workers for the industrial revolution. Classrooms haven't changed much since then, the film argues, though the world is changing at break-neck speed.

Enter High Tech High in San Diego, where Whiteley spent two years filming in classrooms. High Tech High, a public charter school with funding from private donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, turns traditional, test-based education on its head.

Instead of using textbooks and testing, High Tech High uses project-based learning that develops autonomy, self-confidence and problem-solving skills, and collaboration by having students complete projects judged by their school community, not just by their teachers. It's a STEM-focused school, but instructors are given freedom in their classrooms, separate from state-mandated requirements and teaching for standardized testing. There is no tuition, and so far, the school boasts a nearly 100 percent college admissions rate.

The thesis behind High Tech High, and the film, is that in order for graduates to prepare for a modern economy, they need different abilities than the ones that schools are teaching now which are mostly reliant on rote memory and testing ability and instead need certain learned traits, namely, creativity and innovation.

Whiteley, director of "Mitt," talked to us about education and the future of jobs.

Question: Your film starts off with a scene of your own 10-year old daughter, Scout, who is stuck in a tearful parent-teacher conference with her mother and teacher because she's having a hard time staying interested in math class. Is that what got you interested in the subject of education?

GW: In that scene, Scout is so discouraged by school that she's crying. Her trouble at school wasn't manifested in bad grades, so much as a lack of interest, and she had always been precocious and intuitive. We prepared our kids to go to school by telling them that we won't be there, but you can trust these people this system to take care of you. So listen to them, do what they say, and it will be meaningful later. What you see in that scene is that she doesn't believe it she doesn't believe the textbook drilling and testing is good for her. She's disillusioned, and she's in the fourth grade. She already thinks it's soul crushing.

Question: How has making this film changed your belief in the school system?

GW: If you asked me before I met Ted [executive producer Ted Dintersmith, who approached Whiteley about making the film], I would have said the way to fix it is lengthening the school day, shortening summer break, increasing test scores and sending all the teachers to Shanghai.

We will hear a lot of this in the next presidential cycle, and everyone will have a different approach, depending on what is happening globally. Education gets a lot of play when we are losing jobs overseas. Almost everyone will say that we need to pay teachers more and increase test scores. I think that is a lazy way to look at education but I get it because I was one of those people before.

Question: Why are you critical of more school days and school hours and more testing now?

GW: I think most people in congressional committees and forming policy are coming at it from a perspective of how to make America more competitive globally, which will have economic and defense impacts. It's not wrong to think about it that way, but it doesn't play to America's strengths in face, America has succeeded in spite of our school system, not because of it, for the last 30 years.

America has set itself apart because of kids in a garage that invent something amazing. They get frustrated in math class and strike out on their own and develop their own projects and theories. It's a dirty secret that we have always trailed the world in international test scores. We have always sucked at it, it's not like we are just falling behind now. But in other ways that we can measure in innovation and academic prowess, we do quite well, partly because we are naturally curious and we live in a culture that rewards innovation. When we double down on increasing standardized testing scores again and again, at some point, kids will give up, they will say fine, I'll cram and I'll memorize.

Question: The schools in your film emphasize "soft skills" like creativity and problem-solving. Are soft skills enough to get a job?

GW: In the film, we interview people from Google and Cisco the country's job leaders and they all said the same thing: America's kids don't think critically enough. Google has stopped hiring the top students from top schools because it's not a good indicator of whether they will succeed in the company.

Everyone agrees that creativity is the last human skill that will get automated or outsourced. One way to parent is if I were investing in stocks, and skills were stocks, I would throw my money into creativity and how to unlock that. If you have someone who is curious, creative, collaborative, with a heightened sense of communication, employers tell us that they can teach that employee about how the company works and how to work there. Even if they have an advanced degree from Harvard, if a person doesn't have those traits, Google can't teach them.

Question: So should everyone be gearing themselves or their kids toward high-tech jobs?

GW: Looking at a particular company and positioning yourself to be hirable by them would be a mistake. When I graduated, Microsoft ruled planet Earth. How quickly things have changed. It's likely that we are preparing kids for jobs that have not been invented yet. What would be smart is to identify skills that are highly valued and going gangbusters right now, like creativity. Any job where an employer can write down the instructions, and the employee can follow it, that job will be gone way faster than we can imagine.

Question: One of the criticisms of your film is that it questions the value of college, and some of the practices and ideas in it steer students away from the traditional college-to-job pipeline. Isn't that a little dangerous?

GW: Think about the trades that we are being asked to make. Someone comes to you and says these are your options: a future that is highly predictable, but has a very firm ceiling. You're going to be able to take care of a family, but you're going to have to give up large chunks of your day doing something that you don't really like.

Or, your career will be highly unpredictable, and will change course 10-12 times in the course of your life. You won't be able to predict if you do XY and Z, that you'll make a fixed amount. But you will be able to offer to the world the thing that makes you most marketable.

Question: Some of the country's leading economists appear in your film, and many of them are concerned with "job polarization" and the idea that we are swiftly moving toward a society of low-paid service workers and highly paid specialized workers like programmers and engineers. Does this kind of education gear students toward the second group?

GW: We're in an amazing time. Nobody should be lamenting that assembly line jobs are gone, they were crappy to begin with. Now is a time that we could fulfill our destiny as human beings as highly intelligent, highly collaborative beings, and schools should encourage that with every second of their curriculum. If we did that, major problems like world hunger, water shortage, would be much easier to tackle. And we would create more worthwhile jobs in the process.

Question: In the process of making this film, you moved and put your own two kids into High Tech High. When they graduate, will you encourage them to go to college?

GW: We need to rethink whether college is for everybody. We sold everyone on the idea because in the past it led to better jobs and it still does but it's not clear if that's still going to happen. In the current system, it would be foolish not to heavily consider college. But if I'm sending my kids to college with [the skills typically learned in American schools] they're not going to light the world on fire. For my kids, yes, I want them to go to college, but I also want to prepare them for skills they need in college and after. I'm not confident that kids are gaining those in the current school or college systems.
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