Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Fundamental Flaw

From the May 21st issue of Fortune Magazine (article not online yet), comes this quote from Fred Smith, founder and CEO of FedEx:
We put so much emphasis on "college degrees." Well, in Germany students at some point come to a fork in the road, and they either go on to university or they go on to a trade school. Say you're a FedEx airplane mechanic working on one of our Boeing Triple Sevens. That's a $100,000-plus job. You don't have to have a college degree to get that job. You don't have to know Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales. You can go right to West Memphis, Ark., where we have a relationship with the community college, and be trained to be a licensed mechanic. Then you can come to work at FedEx. (p. 206, emphasis mine.)
Now, I have mixed feelings about this quote. I've never believed that going to college, or getting an education in general, is solely about job preparation. We don't read The Canterbury Tales in order to directly prepare for having a particular career. Having said that, however, this quote resonated to me because once again it seems to be flying the face of most current education-reform movements, which all seem to promote academic skills and college admission as precursors to employment as the ultimate goals of K-12 education.

There are a lot of skills an airplane mechanic for FedEx needs - and some of them will be learned in school - but my guess is that knowing "there is a complex number i such that i2 = -1, and every complex number has the form a + bi with a and b real?" (CCSS, N-CN 1), or how to "prove the Pythagorean identity sin2(x) + cos2(x) = 1 and use it to find sin(x), cos (x), or tan(x) and the quadrant of the angle" (CCSS, F-TF 8) isn't quite necessary.

So, once again, I'm struggling with this idea that all students need to learn the exact same things at the exact same time. That doesn't mean that some students shouldn't read The Canterbury Tales, and that some (possibly other) students shouldn't learn trigonometric identities. But I worry that locking our students into a fixed, required, standardized curriculum that is supposed to meet the needs of all of them will end up meeting the needs of few of them. I worry that our "assumption that it does indeed provide a comprehensive, well-rounded education" is a fundamental flaw in our thinking.


  1. Agreed. Our time is so short here. To force everyone down the same path is ludicrous; to rob them of the only thing they have just does not feel right.

    Help them build their foundation and then guide them.

    NPR reported on Germany's model a few weeks back,

  2. Karl, I have the very same deep reservations about our standardized approach. Our current system indeed speaks with a forked tongue as well. Espousing the mantra of differentiated instruction within the standardized curriculum smacks of Orwellian newspeak.

    At the moment our students aren't arriving at college prepared for its rigors, nor well prepared to step directly into the 21st century work force.

    Thanks, once again, for being a light.

  3. While agree with the comments made here, my experiences as an adjunct instructor at a rural Iowa community college and an alternative high school teacher make me wonder if students of a certain socioeconomic background won't ever come to a "fork in the road," having been "groomed" for trade school from the beginning. And while I have no problem appreciating the fact that some young people know "what they want to be" from a very young age, I also believe that students deserve options. There is a significant difference between educating someone and training them, don't you think?

  4. IowaSpartan - I, too, worry about the tracking element of forcing students to choose a vocation at an early age (a la some European countries). But I still think there's a better way than "tracking" them all into college prep (although I'm not sure exactly what that looks like).

  5. The most important factor is that all students are learning (or building dendrites). There is no one way to do this. It can be done in a math or science lab, it can be done in an art, construction or robotics lab. Our job is to consistently connect students to the places where this rigorous, exciting, passionate learning can happen.
    Great post....

  6. Although I certainly agree that the college prep route is not ideal for all students, I also believe that students deserve to have options. It is very hard to find a curriculum that satisfies both ends of the spectrum. Students heading to trade school inevitably find themselves in classes that they feel are not necessary. Students in college often feel unprepared for the rigors of a college course, and tend to struggle during their freshman year. Education is not solely about what we learn but about teaching our children to be able to learn, which is much more important that calculus functions or metaphors in British literature.

  7. I totally agree with your reservations Karl. Sometimes it feels like we are making "cookie-cutter" children. I am a Michigan teacher and there are so many requirements for graduation now that students have few choices in their four years of high school. Furthermore, not every child needs or wants to go to college - especially with the cost and the bleak economic outlook in our nation at this time. And even those that do may want to major in something that does not require 4 years of Math or 4 years of Science. What if you want to be an author? What if you want to major in the social sciences? Do those need Algebra 2 or Geometry or Physics or Chemistry? I am not saying that students don't need a well-rounded education and the opportunity to try different subject areas. I am saying that they need more choices to engage them and actually put them in charge of their own learning.