K–12: A Brief History
Industrialists wanted more profit
And workers protesting could chuck it
So saboteurs did
To bust up the rig
And history calls them techphobic
What is the point of education? Specifically, what is the point of education in the minds of the different stakeholders—students, faculty, and administrators? What has shaped and is shaping that context?
In industrial and post-industrial economies, education operates to prepare a skilled workforce to gain or maintain a competitive edge both for organizations internal to a given economy as well as in the rivalry between economies. In the United States, the government creation of land grant institutions followed a perceived need to adapt the population to new and different skills to meet expanding industry needs. Alongside the land grant institutions and the changes they ushered in were the development, forms, and practices of K–12 education. From the start of public education to the very late 20th century, the K–12 educational format was pretty much the same across the country. Rows of desks with a teacher at the front delivering lessons and tasks for students to carry out while they sat quiet and attentive. Recess and PE classes providing some physical outlet for children and teens otherwise confined. Alternative learning was typically shop class and vocational-technical school for high schoolers bound for a trade. The workplaces through that time were similar. Office spaces were rows of desks, later cube farms, often with a supervisor nearby, but set apart from the workers. Factory spaces were not physically arranged like schools, but still relied on authority structures to ensure productivity. Open classrooms and reduced structure mirrored open floor plans and other management innovations as the 20th Century closed. Why? Industry needed talent, needed workers, who were more creative and more flexible to match the move towards focus on quarterly earnings and staying constantly competitive. The fascination and cultural embrace of Fred W. Taylor’s management science and its virtue of efficiency have not waned. Its effects on our education priorities and designs remain evident.
Taylor’s morality resets
What moderns consider true assets
Human life gets panned
So elites can corner the markets
Modern Pressures on Higher Ed
The most visible pressure on higher education institutions comes from industry leaders complaining that college students these days are not prepared to enter the workforce. The myriad articles in business and mainstream press criticizing the supposed inadequacies of higher education regularly remind us of this. What these industry leaders mean is college students do not appear to be ready on day one to do the full job. There are a number of problems with this perspective that too rarely get called out. First, the sheer size of most businesses means these leaders are remarkably disconnected from hiring and orientation processes. This interpretation from them comes from spreadsheets and reports from further down the management chain. Are those reports missing or obscuring other factors? Do these leaders’ organizations have good, robust orientation programs and managers with the time, training, energy, and commitment to onboard a new hire? Could there be other internal factors CEOs might miss, or obscure? Why have we seen an increase in these complaints over the past 15–20 years? Does it have anything to do with the increase in organizations outsourcing cost centers, like training and development units?
(Note that this time frame seems to run parallel to the rising costs of college degrees. So as a college degree becomes more essential to enter the workforce for even a decent wage—keeping in mind most wages in the US economy have remained stagnant for the past 30 years, after inflationary adjustment, despite rising productivity and profits for senior leaders—employers want to shift costs from internal training and development to students paying rising tuition, often at state schools that have seen budget support cut by their government.)
These complaints from corporate leadership contain a critical error. Students, especially from the oft-maligned liberal arts and humanities majors, actually possess the skills most valued by employers. The problem students face, and that employers misinterpret, lies in how those experiences and skills are acknowledged and communicated. Of course, employers who still favor narrow selections of majors in the hiring filters contribute to missing qualified students in many positions. Hiring a history major with strong communication, collaboration, and leadership skills and running them through a six week intensive on Java or C++ would probably prove more effective in the long term than a CS major with no clue how to work well with others or have a productive conversation with someone in marketing or R&D. Unfortunately, that’s not how the hiring process usually goes.
The launch of education tech firms like Coursera, and companies like Google, offering certificates for the skills they value today with the promise of a job in the short term, add another vector of pressure on higher education institutions. While competition is lauded, often by business leaders who take pains to reduce competition for their own enterprises, the entrance into the education market by these players further shifts the concept of education from something broadly beneficial for a lifetime to a time sensitive commodity necessary for a slightly better pay rate. One that’s offered, it should be noted, by those in an altogether higher pay grade with a vested interest in a workforce beholden to their products. Does that Google certificate lose value as soon as you drive it off the lot?
Higher education typically measures success through First Destinations surveys or similar. These surveys by design predicate employment in a field related to a graduate’s degree as the highest measure of success for the institution. What’s measured indicates what’s valued. This creates an awkward position if one considers the discrepancy between majors and the significantly larger set of possible fields of employment. Entering graduate schools is also acceptable; a safe handoff to another institution that still demonstrates a progression towards employment. Never mind issues like the market being glutted with newly minted PhDs who’ve received little training or support for the non-academic future they did not envision when they entered, but that’s statistically the most likely outcome for all their efforts.
For those First Destination surveys, graduate employment information gets collected. The bigger the names, the better. Career centers must tout the big names hiring the school’s students so admissions can impress prospective students and their families with the narrative that tuition here leads to a real job with a real paycheck. Schools building lazy rivers and luxury apartments for student housing may receive media attention around admission and recruitment tactics, but this pitch about employment says more about higher education’s priorities and inability to resist the expectations of industry.
Career Centers and the College to Work Pipeline
Enter into this mix career centers, historically siloed and under-resourced. Originally conceived as placement offices (and still referred to by many in higher education senior leadership as such) during the heyday of the GI Bill, these departments have labored over the past 20 years to redefine themselves to match the changing economic landscape students will enter upon graduation. These departments take on a varied mix of responsibilities including managing experiential education programs (internships and co-ops), running programming on leadership development and career readiness competencies, hosting large and small events like job fairs, career fairs, and employer information sessions, operating job boards, providing a broad range of career counseling and advising services, reviewing and coaching students on the full range of the components of the hiring process, and connecting students with alumni through networking tools and events. In an environment where professional staff to student ratios can be 2:2000 or more, efficiency drives many decisions. Automation increasingly becomes the road to efficiency with a growing number of third party vendors offering AI/ML based tools to stand in for activities like basic résumé review duties and video interview feedback.
Two particular aspects of this development bear mention. First, these new tools replace historically human-to-human interactions about what is often regarded and talked about as being a particularly human process. Fit is a two way street in hiring, and the best way for a candidate to determine if an organization even approximates their PR is through interaction with those who work there. This replacement of human interaction conditions students to accept that computers are and should be their first line of instruction, inquiry, and engagement. Second, the creators of these tools see a hiring process that replaces human gatekeepers with code, and they have responded by giving candidates technology to maintain a sense of parity with the applicant tracking systems (ATSs), online skills and personality assessments, and video interview systems of employers. Meanwhile applicants have less exposure to the humans on the other side even as AI advocates pitch it as increasing the human side of our work. Often career centers must pay for these products while their staff and the students they serve become part of the training data to enrich the vendor.
A futurist delivering a keynote at a recent conference for university career development professionals unintentionally captured the moment. After laying out a future that offers decreasing stability for employees; a future that sees the majority of professional workers as gig workers, not employees; and a nod to growing rates of mental health issues, especially around anxiety; her self-proclaimed pro-human take was advice (good, quality advice) on how practitioners could prepare students for this hostile job market. The inevitability of it all was always assumed and never questioned.
Hiring tech’s pitch
Improve human addition
Through human subtraction
Beyond the hiring process new employees may find themselves directed not to their supervisor or HR representative for help acclimating to a new workplace, but to the AI chatbot. Algorithms are now being developed and deployed to monitor, measure, and assess employee productivity and feed reports to managers for annual reviews. Even now code embedded in Microsoft Outlook can monitor tasks, suggest follow up and basic actions, and be embedded in employee management by sending reports on time spent on activities, response times, and more.
Mario Savio was Right in 1964, He’s Right Today
In the critical conversation around surveillance technology in education we must acknowledge its location within a larger set of industry-driven values around employment. The tension between educating well-rounded citizens and training future workers is as old as public education in the United States. The latter almost always wins, except for those already possessing privilege and having access to elite institutions where conversations around purpose in career sound like inheritances, not taunts. Ultimately, this mindset of humans as primarily cogs in the machine will undermine or even negate important undertakings like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Free Speech Movement founder Mario Savio’s protest speech against a machine-like university in 1964 is if anything more applicable today:
As long as the human as resource mindset of western industry dominates the conversation around employment, it will inform and shape the nature, tools, and forms of pedagogy. Schools will continue to be perceived and treated as refineries for raw materials, rather than a civic good for the development of human beings.