Common Core: Closing the Skills Gap or Expanding the Economic Reality Gap?

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As I reflect upon the numerous changes in education policy and reforms that are moving full speed ahead across our nation, surreal is the best word to describe how it feels to be a public school teacher as 2014 comes to a close.

Wonder if I am the only educator expecting Morpheus to walk into my classroom any day now and say; “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”

There is a huge disconect between the college and career readiness rhetoric of the ed reformers and the reality of our nation’s jobs outlook and employment trends that reveal a continuing shift away from manufacturing and to a service-based economy.

Many Common Core enthusiasts continue to preach about the importance of Big Data and the power of data-driven instruction, but when it comes to reliable evidence and actual research supporting their nationwide college and career readiness mandate, there  is a significant data deficit.

In the debate over why the U.S. has been so slow to emerge from the Great Recession, many have laid the blame on what’s become known as the skills gap: Despite an abundance of workers, too many simply aren’t qualified to fill the jobs available…

Indeed, there are now 4.7 million job openings in the U.S., the most in more than a decade. Even so, some 9.7 million people are looking for work—more than two for every open job.

The skills gap argument relies on that basic paradox: How can there be so many unemployed people in the face of so many job openings?…

In recent decades, on-the-job training has declined. Companies want new hires to be able to “hit the ground running.”…

In particular, companies want employees who have already done the job somewhere else. That shows up in data about how much employers value internships.

It’s Not a Skills Gap: U.S. Workers Are Overqualified, Undertrained Matthew Philips 8/19/14

While the Common Core claims to foster career readiness, the Math and ELA standards are focused exclusively on academic skills and preparing students for Common Core tests, while employers increasingly desire entry-level workers (with and without college degrees) who have actual work experience.

By the time most kids are in high school, they’ve probably heard some career advice along these lines: get into a good college, pick a marketable major, keep those grades up, and you’ll land a good job. But that doesn’t quite cover it anymore.

In a survey out today from Marketplace and The Chronicle of Higher Education, employers said what matters most to them actually happens outside the classroom.

“Internships came back as the most important thing that employers look for when evaluating a recent college graduate,” says Dan Berrett, senior reporter at the Chronicle. “More important than where they went to college, the major they pursued, and even their grade point average.”

Internships become the new job requirement Amy Scott 3/4/13

Data also suggests that new-hires lack of skills and work experience can be attributed to a decline in school-based vocational pathways and lack of employer training programs.

There are almost certainly more hedge-fund managers in Mount Kisco than there are tool and die makers–and Gretchen Zierick has no use for the Wall-Streeters. But she says she can’t even get the time to talk with students about manufacturing careers, because, well, every kid is above average, as Garrison Keillor would say, and supposed to go to college. “There just aren’t people out there with the skills we need, or the interest in acquiring them”…

What’s really interesting about all this is that it’s not just the usual suspects who are complaining about the lack of good workers. You know: software companies that want to hire programmers from India. It turns out that good old manufacturers are having trouble finding excellent employees.

So, what is going on? And why is this happening?

Business owners start by blaming the education system. For example, Hypertherm, a New Hampshire maker of precision-cutting systems, says half of its applicants can’t perform simple math. Adds Jay Moon of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association: “A lot of kids cannot even read a ruler.” Many companies also complain that shop classes are being eliminated, so that few high-schoolers even know what a lathe is, much less how to work one.

There is some truth to these complaints. Yeah, the nation’s schools could do better; young people are, alas, imperfect (unlike their elders). But whining about the good old days is hardly useful. And it also obscures an important point: Businesses themselves are a big part of the alleged skills gap.

Why “alleged”? Because, on a national level, the skills gap does not exist. (See Who Says There’s A Skills Gap?)

Yes, there are issues finding people for specific jobs in specific industries; for the labor force as a whole, however, the skills-gap “crisis” is no such thing. And to the extent that your business is having problems, to a large degree, the solutions are in your hands. Specifically: Start training programs, pay competitive wages, and work with governments and community colleges.

Is There Really a Skills Gap? Cait Murphy April, 014

While the Common Core focuses on academic skills and preparing every student for the rigors of first-year Math and ELA college courses, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this month that there are millions of job openings in manufacturing, trade, transportation, retail, health services, food service, arts, entertainment, leisure and hospitality that do not require college degrees.

There were 4.8 million job openings on the last business day of October. The job openings rate was 3.3 percent. The number of job openings was little changed for total private and declined for government in October. (See table 1.) The level of job openings decreased for state and local government. The job openings level was little changed in all four regions.

The number of job openings (not seasonally adjusted) increased over the 12 months ending in October for total nonfarm and total private, and was little changed for government. The job openings level increased over the year for many industries, including both professional and business services and accommodation and food services. The number of openings also increased over the year in all four regions. (See table 7.)

Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary Bureau of Labor Statistics 12/9/14

Hard to take Common Core claims of career readiness seriously when the standards are focused primarily on Singapore-like math skills and close reading skills rather than transferable skills addressing the Labor Force projections of U.S. Department of Labor

Occupations related to healthcare, healthcare support, construction, and personal care services are projected to add a combined 5.3 million jobs, an increase representing approximately one-third of all employment gains over the coming decade…

Occupations requiring a high school diploma are expected to add the greatest number of new jobs, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all employment gains over the projection period.

As demand for medical services increases as a result of population aging and expanding medical insurance coverage, the health care sector and its associated occupations are expected to see sizable gains in employment and output.

The construction industry, as well as the occupations that support it, also will experience rapid growth in employment and output. Employment in the construction sector is expected to return to its long-term trend of increase, a rebound consistent with expectations about future population growth and the need to replace older structures.

Overview of Projections to 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics 12/2013

Surely the evidence-light career readiness claims of the Common Core evangelists are supported by STEM occupations data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau?

People with bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and math are more likely than other college graduates to have a job, but most of them don’t work in STEM occupations, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released Thursday.

Nearly 75 percent of all holders of bachelor’s degrees in STEM disciplines don’t have jobs in STEM occupations, according to a survey that reached 3.5 million homes, said Liana Christin Landivar, a sociologist with the Census Bureau. The bureau’s American Community Survey is the largest household survey in the nation…

Michael S. Teitelbaum, senior research associate in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, said certain fields do have good job prospects, but he cautioned against blindly guiding students into STEM disciplines.

“The STEM acronym is increasingly misleading rather than informative,” Teitelbaum said. He said that studies have found that nearly 20 percent of all jobs should be considered STEM-related, based on the technology used. The workers involved could include heating and air-conditioning installers, carpenters and automotive technicians, whose careers require technical knowledge but not a STEM degree, he said.

Teitelbaum said data indicate that there are at least twice as many people entering the workforce as there are jobs in STEM fields for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Most with college STEM degrees go to work in other fields, survey finds  7/10/14

Some have suggested that perpetuating misleading claims regarding the great demand for STEM workers may also in the best interest of Colleges and Universities that recruit STEM majors.

Higher education receives about half of the total federal STEM education budget of $3.1-billion, according to the National Science and Technology Council. Colleges get grants from 14 agencies, including NASA and the National Science Foundation, to increase the number of STEM majors and grads, improve curricula, and bring more women and minority students into science and technology fields.

Master’s-degree STEM slots also draw the international students whose tuition so many research universities rely on, and institutions hire postdoctoral workers to run labs…

Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology who frequently testifies before Congress, has argued that companies, including Microsoft, have advocated for more federal money for STEM education and more visas for foreign IT workers, even as they lay off thousands of American employees with comparable skills. “The Washington consensus is that there is a broad-based shortage of STEM workers, and it’s just not true,” he says.

Others also see something nefarious behind the crisis rhetoric.

“This is all about industry wanting to lower wages,” says Norman S. Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis. Mr. Matloff has investigated how IT employers benefit by raising the numbers of lower-paid foreign STEM laborers and by sending offshore the engineering and STEM manufacturing jobs of mostly older American workers. “We have a surplus of homegrown STEM workers now,” he says. “We’ve had it in the past and we’re likely to have it in the future.”

The STEM Crisis: Reality or Myth? Michael Anft 11/11/2013

While Common Core enthusiasts continue to claim that a college degree is the best passport to good jobs and higher wages, college graduates are increasingly underemployed and must work several  jobs as more and more employers are offering part-time jobs and relying on temp workers to reduce payroll and avoid having to provide benefits for their workers.

Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course, anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage…

Being financially secure and teaching at an institute of higher education are almost mutually exclusive, even among professors who are able to teach the maximum amount of courses each semester. Thus, more than half of adjunct professors in the United States seek a second job…

“I ended up applying for a job in a donut shop recently,” said an Ohio professor who requested to go by a pseudonym. Professor Doe taught for over two decades. Many years he only made $9600. Resorting to a food service job was the only way he could afford to live, but it came with more than its expected share of humiliation.

“One of the managers there is one of the students I had a year ago who was one of the very worst writers I’ve ever had. What are we really saying here? What’s going on in the work world? Something does not seem quite right. I’m not asking to be rich. I’m not asking to be famous. I just want to pay my bills.”

Life became even more harrowing for adjuncts after the Affordable Care Act when universities slashed hours and health insurance coverage became even more difficult to obtain…

“On the whole, teaching quality by adjuncts is excellent,” said Kane Faucher, a six-year adjunct. “But many are not available for mentoring and consultation because they have to string together so many courses just to reach or possibly exceed the poverty line. This means our resources are stretched too thinly as a matter of financial survival, and there are many adjuncts who do not even have access to a proper office, which means they work out of coffee shops and cars.”…

Ann Kottner, an adjunct professor and activist, agreed.

“The real problem with the adjunct market right now is that it cheats students of the really outstanding educations they should be getting,” she said. “They’re paying a lot of money for these educations and they’re not getting them. And it’s not because they have bad instructors, it’s because their instructors are not supported to do the kind of work they can do.”

Professors on food stamps: The shocking true story of academia in 2014 Matt Saccaro 9/21/14

Earlier this month Brittany Bronson, an English instructor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas explained the challenges and rewards of working in higher education in her NY Times Op-ED.

Bumping into a student at the gym can be awkward, but exposing the reality that I, with my master’s degree, not only have another job, but must have one, risks destroying the facade of success I present to my students as one of their university mentors…

In class I emphasize the value of a degree as a means to avoid the sort of jobs that I myself go to when those hours in the classroom are over…

The majority of my students this semester hold part-time survival jobs, and some of them will remain in those jobs for the rest of their working lives. About 60 percent of the college freshmen I teach will not finish their degree. They will turn 21 and then forgo a bachelor’s degree for the instant gratification of a cash-based income…

In a city like Las Vegas, many customer-service jobs generate far more cash (with fewer work hours) than entry-level, office-dwelling, degree-requiring jobs. It can be hard to convince my 19-year-old students that the latter is more profitable or of greater personal value…

But not all my restaurant co-workers are college dropouts, and none are failures. Many have bachelor’s degrees; others have real estate licenses, freelancing projects or extraordinary musical and artistic abilities. Others are nontraditional students, having entered the work force before attending college and making the wise decision not to “find themselves” and come out with $40,000 in debt, at 4.6 percent interest.

Most of them are parents who have bought homes, raised children and made financial investments off their modest incomes. They are some of the kindest, hardest-working people I know, and after three years alongside them, I find it difficult to tell my students to avoid being like them.

My perhaps naïve hope is that when I tell students I’m not only an academic, but a “survival” jobholder, I’ll make a dent in the artificial, inaccurate division society places between blue-collar work and “intelligent” work. We expect our teachers to teach us, not our servers, although in the current economy, these might be the same people.

If my students can imagine the possibility that choosing to work with their hands does not automatically exclude them from being people who critically examine the world around them, I will feel I’ve done something worthwhile, not only for those who will earn their degree, but for the majority who will not.

Your Waitress, Your Professor Brittany Bronson 12/18/14

Don’t have to be an expert in Common Core math to know that the ed reformers claims about preparing our students for college and careers just doesn’t add up.

It may be true that the data-driven Common Core supports current and future careers in Big Data collecting/mining/sharing, the testing industry, and software development.

However, the absence of CCSS pathways leading to internships, apprenticeships, work-based learning experiences, certificates, licenses, etc clearly debunks ed reformers rhetoric that the Common Core advances career readiness.

Not one to believe in conspiracy theories but considering the reality of America’s jobs outlook and trends, could ed reformers emphasis on college prep actually be less about career readiness and more about assuring that most students apply to and attend college?

Saddled with $20,000 or more in debt and lacking work experience and desireable  trade/vocational job skills, college graduates will have no choice but to accept the economic reality of part-time jobs and underemployment.

If you squint your eyes just a little bit, there is an uncanny resemblance between David Coleman and Agent Smith.

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