Education needs a modern take—dreamers needed
The world needs innovative thinkers who can work collaboratively to take on the complexities of the modern world. This is precisely the role today’s young people want to fill.
But our education system isn’t doing the job of preparing them for this destiny. We’re barely preparing our children and youth to survive in today’s economy let alone lead tomorrow’s world.
A recent State of the American Youth Survey by Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation found: “As they conclude the 2022-2023 school year, U.S. students in grades 5-12 give their schools a B- grade […] Students are least positive about how well their school fosters excitement about learning, serves different learning styles, teaches about potential careers, and provides mental health support. They are most positive about their school’s safety and respect for individual differences.”
Putting education to work
Looking at the workforce, where data on the topic of how well we’re preparing young people is plentiful, a Gallup-Lumina Foundation poll found that a mere 11% of U.S. business leaders strongly agree that college graduates have the skills and competencies workplaces require. To add to this picture, only half of Americans obtain a college degree or postsecondary credential; the other half navigate life with a high school diploma or less.
Closer to home, a 2021 poll by Launch Michigan shows 45% of Michigan business leaders say finding well-prepared workers is “very big problem.”
We can’t solve this by teaching specific knowledge or training for technical skills alone. The real power is in the development of skills that are adaptable and transferable, like critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity.
A report by the World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of the children who entered primary school in 2017 will have jobs that do not yet exist and for which their education will fail to prepare them. Furthermore, a study by the Foundation for Young Australians, based on worldwide data from the McKinsey Global Institute and the World Economic Forum, projects that today’s young people will have at least 16 distinct careers across five different industries due to increasing, frequent changes in the global economy.
An educated public holds power
Public education is our greatest chance of offering every young person the foundation they need to set and achieve high ambitions. What’s more, education is the foundation of our democracy.
“Education is one of the most important predictors—usually, in fact, the most important predictor—of many forms of social participation—from voting to associational membership, to chairing a local committee to hosting a dinner party to giving blood. The same basic pattern applies to both men and women and to all races and generations. Education, in short, is an extremely powerful predictor of civic engagement,” wrote Robert Putman, a political scientist and bestselling author of 15 books on the decline of opportunity and democracy in America.
In the early-mid 1800’s, Horace Mann, the “father of American education,” advocated for a universal education system, stressing that it is essential for a democratic society. He also envisioned that it would prevent a class system from emerging, famously stating that education is “the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”
What will it take to ace the assignment?
Across our nation, and particularly in Michigan, the education system has not yet been designed to be a great equalizer.
A 2023 State of Education report by Education Trust-Midwest found that “Michigan’s performance for students from low-income backgrounds ranked 11th worst in the county, falling far below the national average. While the results were stark for all students, the disparities were steepest for Black students were even more troubling… This year, Michigan fell even further, into the bottom five for 4th grade reading among Black students.”
Ed-Trust Midwest proposes that a significant factor contributing to this outcome is that “Michigan is underfunding students from low-income backgrounds and English Learners by an estimated $5.1 billion annually compared to what leading states practice and what research indicates is needed for those students to succeed.”
The design of today’s education system isn’t an ideal springboard for any kids. But for those who already have odds stacked against them, the upward bound is even more minimal.
Think of deep sea pressure. If you are plopped into the ocean at sea level, you don’t feel pressure because the air surrounding you presses down at the same rate as the fluids in your body push out. You stay afloat, and with a little instruction, you can swim forward.
The sea-level kids are the ones who can always get to school, regardless of the reliability of their parents’ work schedule or car. If they are struggling in a subject, a parent or tutor can help them make a breakthrough. After school and during the summer, they take part in programs and activities that expand their growth.
A lot of kids don’t start at sea level. The deeper you are from the surface, the greater the water pressure pushes down on you. For every 33 feet down, the pressure increases by one atmosphere.
Deep-sea kids don’t wade into school ready to swim. They carry younger siblings on their backs when a parent or caregiver needs to pick up another work shift. Toxins pollute their water and air. Healthy food options are hard to come by. All of it—any of it—makes treading water hard. And if housing, transportation, and/or safe routes to school aren’t guaranteed, there is no coming up for air.
Poverty is a heavy weight. The heavier the weight, the farther down below the surface you start. And the farther down you start, the more pressure pushes down on you.
Why Detroit students are the dreamers we need
Too many young people in Detroit carry the weight of poverty—and of racial biases that have caused and exacerbated it. More than half (57%) of Detroit youth struggle with poverty, in a majority-Black city where the poverty rate is nearly three times higher than the national average.
The goal isn’t to bring education in Detroit up to the lackluster surface of the status quo, rather it is to engage Detroit youth in designing a future-forward, world-class education system where every student can soar.
To do that, we have to look below the signs at the surface of the education system to understand what is needed. We need the insights of Detroit youth on what’s not working for them and their ideas for what will work.