Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Microsoft, Verizon, and Other Big U.S. Companies Design Their Ideal High School Courses

We asked senior executives from a variety of industries to weigh in
By Michelle R. Davis — February 04, 2020 23 min read
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      Today’s classrooms aren’t preparing students for tomorrow’s jobs.

      That’s a broad statement, but in many schools it’s the truth. Education looks very much the same—with some tweaks around the edges—as it has for decades, yet business and industry’s idea of what “work” looks like is evolving at a dynamic pace.

      Nearly 50 percent of today’s jobs won’t even be options for students by 2033 as those jobs become automated, according to an Oxford University study. And a recent RAND report on reimagining the workforce development pipeline for the 21st century found that employers are already struggling to find workers with the skills they require, such as creativity, problem-solving, and teamwork. The report notes that just 33 percent of employers in a recent poll agreed that educational institutions were graduating students with the expertise to meet their needs.

      But how are schools supposed to teach the skills needed for this future workplace, when the picture of what that might look like remains fuzzy?

      Education Week asked some of the biggest and fastest-growing companies in the United States how schools can prepare students to be an essential part of their future workforce. We asked senior executives from those companies this question:

      “If you could design one course to put in high schools around the country, what would it be and what would it look like?”

      In some cases, the responses might be what you would expect: a focus on cybersecurity, technology, money management. In other cases, though, company executives were looking for more “soft skills” that could help an employee be successful in any type of setting—a focus on kindness, creativity, communication, and even an introduction to Zen Buddhism.

      Here are some of the top responses (edited for clarity and brevity) to our query.

      If your company could design one course to put in high schools around the country, what would it be and what would it look like? Email mdavis@educationweek.org with a top executive’s ideas for designing a high school course to prepare students for the future of work.

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      > Abbott

      HEALTH CARE
      Mary Moreland, executive vice president, human resources

      We’re a healthcare technology company that innovates products that help people have better and healthier lives. That’s a high bar and reaching it doesn’t come without the ability to look at all sides of an issue, think through potential problems and form solutions. We would like to see high school students take a course focusing on critical thinking skills and building competency in recognizing how one decision may impact another. You can call the class “Creativity and Complex Problem Solving” and it would put students in real-world situations where they have to problem solve. The idea is to complement cognitive learning with skills that give students the tools be successful in our highly automated, globalized, tech-driven decade.

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      > Adobe

      COMPUTER SOFTWARE
      Mala Sharma, vice president and general manager of Creative Cloud product, marketing, and community

      Creative Expression for Impact: At Adobe, we work every day to develop tools that unleash students’ creativity in the digital age and better prepare them for the future workforce. One skill we know to be fundamental is creative expression. Therefore, at Adobe our mission is to enable creativity for everyone.

      Overview: A course on creative storytelling equipping students with critical skills to use media and digital tools to create change and have impact.

      With machine learning and artificial intelligence upon us, the world is changing rapidly. In the years ahead, students will enter jobs and entire fields that do not yet exist and are unknown. However, what we do know is that skills like communication and creativity will become even more important for tomorrow’s workforce. In fact, creativity has been identified by both the World Economic Forum and Bloomberg as a critical skill for the future workforce. The harsh reality, however, is that while 71 percent of job postings list communication as a necessary skill and 50 percent list creativity, a whopping three in four resumes submitted for those jobs do not list either, according to our recent study.

      We refer to this as a “creativity gap.” Therefore, we must do more to equip the next generation with the creative expression skills and tools to succeed. It is essential for every subject, discipline, and career. This course prepares all students to communicate effectively in innovative ways that create change and inspire action.

      Course Description: Because the ultimate goal is communication and creativity for action and impact, this kind of course benefits from a hands-on, project-based course embracing a “learn by doing” pedagogy.

      In the first half of the course, students work in teams to collaboratively learn about a contemporary challenge or problem, evaluate how it is currently being communicated – effectively or not. They also frame how they intend to communicate the issue to drive change. In the second half of this course, teams focus on developing their creative communication skills by deepening their understanding of rhetoric and design principles to employ text, images, audio, video, animation, web, prototypes or social media. The most successful final projects will be those that represent the voices and ideas of each team member, make best use of technology and communication, and have the highest likelihood to influence, inspire action, and create an impact.

      For example, students may end up creating a video that illustrates the impact wildfires have on local communities, such as this video made by high school students in Paradise, Calif. in 2019. Students may create digital presentations or websites to inform and inspire action, such as these projects on the Women’s March or the March for Science. By learning to communicate and share their message on platforms that reach beyond the classroom, students will get practical experience sharing their ideas with friends, family, and the broader public to learn how to make their voices heard on a local, national, or even global scale.

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      > American Airlines

      AVIATION
      Maya Leibman, executive vice president and chief information officer

      My course will focus on the value of kindness. Many will argue that teaching this a parent’s job and there’s certainly truth to that assertion. But learning these lessons at school with fellow students would be invaluable (especially at an age when a well-respected teacher and a kid’s peer group hold great sway, while the same words from a parent might fall on deaf ears). Study after study shows that kindness and empathy do more to create an environment where the human soul can flourish than any other discipline (certainly including calculus, as soul-enriching as that is for some). My own personal observation in a quarter century as a business executive are of the failings of those difficult to work with, despite their impressive IQs and pedigrees, while those who are kind and empathetic gain followers and stature. No doubt the kindness lesson begins at home but schools are failing our kids by not realizing that this is the true key to success. 

      To round out the curriculum, my ideal high school course would include:

      • How to have difficult conversations
      • How to have healthy relationships
      • Compelling writing
      • Compelling speaking
      • Improv
      • Mindfulness
      • How your brain works
      • Gender and diversity and what it all means
      • How stuff works (toilets, cars, money)

      This curriculum will do more to set up kids for authentic success in work and in life than what they’re currently learning. If anyone knows of the school that features this course–let me know!

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      > Aramark

      FOOD SERVICE
      Barbara Flanagan, president, K-12 division

      If I were to design one course to put in high schools around the country, it would be a dual course about self-awareness and surviving failure. You could call this a business psychology class!

      The course would begin with a Myers–Briggs Type Indicator personal assessment. This would allow the student to start comprehending how he/she acts under stress. I find that many young leaders are unaware of their behaviors and how to manage under stress. The course would spend multiple sessions examining each of the 16 MBTI behavior styles as seen by others.  

      Once individual self-awareness was established, the course would explore how to collectively get a team to perform based on different behavior styles. Each team, comprised of teammates with different behavior styles, would have to accomplish a real-world scenario. Based on the outcome, the class would then dissect which teams failed and why. The course would conclude with overcoming failure strategies, as a means to driving success.

      Why do I believe a course like this is needed? First, I see so many leaders fail because they don’t know how their behavior can negatively affect a team. Every successful leader has to flex their behavior style in order to get the most out of their team. Second, I see so many leaders who hire people just like themselves, not understanding and without considering the power of diverse thinking. Behavior study brings out why diversity is so important. Finally, being a parent of two recent high school graduates and a leader who has failed many times, I believe students need an opportunity to feel failure but most of all, to learn how to survive failure.

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      > AT&T

      TELECOMMUNICATIONS
      Charlene Lake, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and chief sustainability officer

      High school is clearly an important time for the development of life-long competencies. That’s especially relevant now, as college costs are sky-rocketing and many of today’s youth are opting for alternate learning paths. Add to that the fact that technology companies continue their rapid-fire releases of new innovations that impact our day-to-day lives. So, a commitment to “continuous learning” is vital to remain relevant. Many high schools are introducing this idea, but how can we ensure students truly learn the skill? I believe it comes down to prioritization. We live in an era where time is one of our most valuable commodities, and it can be hard to prioritize learning. However, when you identify your personal passions, it’s easier to focus your attention on what drives you. I propose a class that helps students identify what ignites their passions and conditions them to think about how they can continually evolve around that passion throughout their careers.

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      > Bank of America

      FINANCE
      April Schneider, head of consumer and small business products

      I would design a holistic financial education curriculum and encourage students to participate at every level–elementary up through high school. I believe financial literacy is among the most important life skills that we can and should teach students starting at a young age. It’s essential to understand and master skills like budgeting, saving and investing early, since managing finances will be part of every child’s future. Much like the way we study arithmetic or literature, the curriculum would build on itself over time. For elementary and middle school students, it would focus on the basics of budgeting, spending and saving, addressing questions such as: How do you create a budget? What should you think about before making a purchase? Why are savings important? For high school students, it would gradually progress to more complicated topics–covering the fundamentals of student loans, credit scores, credit cards, investing, saving for retirement, homeownership and more. Most importantly, the curriculum would give students the tools to apply these concepts to their own personal financial lives, so they could leave the classroom understanding how to budget, build credit, spend responsibility, and start saving for future goals in college and beyond.

      Learning and understanding important financial concepts can help young adults practice good money habits from the start, which sets themselves up for future financial success. It also gives them a critical advantage as they enter the workforce and come into financial independence. For example, starting to build credit by opening a credit card as early as college can make it easier to achieve goals like homeownership in the future. Building an emergency fund by putting money into savings each month creates a cushion for any financial surprises, like a hefty medical bill or car part replacement. Entering a new job already knowing how 401(K)s work and the value of maximizing monthly contributions can accelerate your nest egg for retirement. And, understanding the concept of compound interest and why you should put away money each month toward saving or investing–beyond just “I was told to”–makes these behaviors really stick.

      Additionally, as many young adults move on to college, student loan debt remains a pressing reality. Our 2020 Bank of America Better Money Habits Millennial report finds that 76 percent of millennials carry debt of some kind, and, of those, 25 percent face student loan debt. This is one of the many reasons why we need financial education for young Americans. Picking a college is a decision that high school students make. Would they have made a different decision if they were more financially educated? They need to understand all of the facts to make the most informed choice.

      At Bank of America, we strongly believe in the importance of ongoing financial learning—and turning that learning into action. That’s why we offer Better Money Habits—Bank of America’s free financial education program that offers a simple way to connect people to relevant content, tools and guidance to help them take control of their finances. As part of the Better Money Habits program, we offer an Education Resource Center that provides teachers with downloadable lesson plans and tools for students preparing for next steps after high school, covering topics such as savings, credit, homeownership and more.

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      > IBM

      TECHNOLOGY
      Bruce Gardner, North America program director, Education Industry Group

      With all the focus on STEM skills over the last decade, I would require every student to take a class on the soft skills–perhaps call it “Human Relations 101.” There is such differentiation today between the small percentage of students who can give a firm handshake, make eye contact, and converse with confidence and those who cannot.

      The majority of my leadership roles in my corporate life and my community life have had more to do with effective soft skills and logical thinking. Students are busy taking classes that meet the various course requirements and don’t get these skills. The closest my kids got to a class similar to what I’m describing was a class in AP Seminar, which at least taught them public speaking on a topic they had researched.

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      > Intuit

      TECHNOLOGY
      David Zasada, vice president of education and corporate responsibility

      I would create a capstone course that would teach students how to use an entrepreneurial mindset when identifying and solving difficult challenges by learning and applying design-thinking techniques [an iterative process to solve problems]. This skillset can be carried throughout the different phases of their life after high school. Students would be given the freedom to choose their area of focus based upon a problem or challenge facing them personally, in their community, or for society as a whole. Projects could range from choosing a career path to major environmental issues. Enabling students to choose their specific problem to solve will keep them interested, engaged and ultimately successful.

      While most work would take place in the classroom, students would also have the opportunity to learn outside of school walls. Teachers would walk students through the design-thinking methodology and coach students by connecting them with resources and partners. Course evaluation would come from what has been learned and how the design thinking techniques have been applied to solve a real-world problem.

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      > Microsoft

      TECHNOLOGY
      Michele Freed, general manager of education experiences

      Readers of Education Week are savvy enough to know that there is no one course or format type that is a silver bullet to prepare students for the jobs of today and tomorrow, particularly when the skills needed are evolving at a faster rate than ever before. However, what is clear is that today’s students aren’t engaged in learning—in a survey of 22,000 US high school students “tired”, “bored” and “stressed” were the top sentiments shared when asked how they felt about school (Yale). They are also insecure about the transition to college and the workplace, with fewer than 45 percent saying they felt positively about their college and career readiness (source).

      This is not a sign of apathy or a lack of future focus. In fact, we know from our own research into the class of 2030 that it is instead a signal that students globally find importance in balance, team focus, empowerment, creativity, innovation and a diverse working environment. They are seeking greater autonomy, not automation over their learning, and value teachers who help them to develop key skills to achieve this, like self-management, self-regulation and critical thinking.

      So, if I were to design a course, I would focus on developing the new future-ready skills today’s students need—a blend of technical skills, work skills and social and emotional skills. I would introduce a course that would allow students to work together in groups to pick a project based on their interests and learning outcomes, while still achieving all the standards and skills for their grade level.

      To be successful students must learn and apply project-management skills, design-thinking approaches, be able to deal with complex and ambiguous problems and, most importantly, collaborate with each other to succeed. This places learners in the front seat of driving and assessing their own purpose-fueled learning.

      The thoughtful use of technology in context will provide the students with exposure to the ways of thinking and working which reflect the real world of college and career. Consider this, currently employers say new hires are ill-prepared for work and cite social and emotional skills as lacking. With this approach, we can solve one society’s biggest problems by giving students a purpose for learning and a unlock the talent they all possess to do more and be more.

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      > Navient

      CONSUMER LENDING
      Jack Remondi, president and CEO

      We would introduce a class that teaches practical financial skills to help high school juniors and seniors make informed decisions about higher education and career training. It is important that the course be timed to coincide with key moments a student is exploring these options during their last two years of high school.

      Over the course of a year, Navient has more than 500 million interactions with student loan borrowers, providing us with many insights that we use to improve how we serve those borrowers. Our research on money habits of people aged 22 to 35 tells us that three in four young adults face challenges like financial or academic difficulties as they pursue their degrees and having this information may help them better navigate those challenges.

      Specific skills the course would cover include:

      Cost of college. Students would learn to calculate the total cost of a desired degree or certificate at the various colleges or technical training programs they are considering. They would also evaluate things like graduation rates and alumni earnings data.

      Paying-for-college plan. Students would develop a plan to pay for the full cost of various educational programs they are exploring. Their plan would include inputs like potential financial aid, parent support, if any, earnings from part-time jobs, and if necessary, student loans. Students would be challenged to explore multiple education options ranging from a lower-cost community college to their “dream school.”

      How interest works. Many young people take out loans to cover the cost of their education. The course would teach them how to calculate interest, how to estimate the monthly payment amount and length of time to pay back a student loan, the consequences and impact of deferring payments as well as making extra payments.

      Budgeting basics. Students would learn how to research likely starting salaries for potential careers they are considering and build a monthly budget based on these realities.

      Family support. The curriculum would include a parent class or take-home discussion guide that helps families discuss what support, if any, parents can provide.

      Putting it all together. Using these skills, students and their families will be more prepared to evaluate college financial aid offers and make informed decisions about what’s next after high school.

      A course designed to provide real-time, practical guidance and tools on these money matters will help young people make critical decisions and build the foundation for a lifetime of good financial skills.

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      > NVIDIA

      TECHNOLOGY
      Craig Clawson, director of NVIDIA’s Deep Learning Institute

      Artificial intelligence is at the heart of the technological forces causing industries to change and evolve. A course that encourages students to learn the basics of machine learning and then makes it personal by applying AI to their individual passions would be really powerful.

      I envision a course that first teaches high schoolers the fundamentals—how to collect data, how to train your computer on that data, how to get your AI to a place where it’s learning on its own.

      With that basic knowledge, the students would each pick something they’re passionate about and find a way to apply machine learning to it. AI isn’t just for people interested in science and technology, and this course could help kids come to that realization. For example, our researchers created an art application where the user can draw a simple landscape, and the AI transforms it into a realistic scene. Machine learning can translate into more than robotics or gaming.

      The course would conclude with group discussions of how AI fits into our society. AI will open a lot more doors than it closes. It isn’t about machines replacing humans. Students could share their thoughts on how we build a future where machines work with us and enable more creativity—opening up new possibilities to our imaginations.

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      > Oracle

      TECHNOLOGY
      Colleen Cassity, executive director, Oracle Education Foundation and Oracle Corporate Citizenship

      We believe a course around design thinking, also known as human-centered design, would be extraordinarily beneficial for students in high school today. Design thinking is an approach to problem-solving that is rooted in empathy for the person or group of people for whom you are designing a solution. When applied to real-world challenges, this develops self-efficacy, collaborative confidence and emotional intelligence. Students learn to adopt feedback as useful and actionable information, and embrace the idea that effort is needed to push through challenges, while finding solutions to solve one’s problems.

      High schools are already integrating design thinking into their day to day curriculum and philosophy. For example, Design Tech High School (d.tech) in Redwood Shores, Calif. teaches design thinking all four years at its school. As part of their curriculum, four times a year, for two weeks at a time, students break from their regular courses to take exploration classes or do internships in the community. They work with Oracle Education Foundation, non-profits, enterprises, small businesses and professionals in a program called Intersession. d.tech students have also led summer workshops on design thinking for local elementary and middle school children as well as developed creative solutions to benefit the Redwood Shores community.

      Another great example of how design thinking can help students be active change makers in their environment is when a new home was being designed for Design Tech High School on Oracle’s campus in Redwood Shores. d.tech staff, students and parents, as well as Oracle Real Estate & Facilities and the Oracle Education Foundation worked with architects to help design the new Design Tech High School building. This was a prime example of human-centered design and how students made an impact on their environment by collaborating with peers, professionals and their community.

      By using the tools of design thinking across all academic subject areas, and by partnering with teachers, classmates and professionals, students can learn to create the change they want to see in the world.

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      > Regeneron

      PHARMACEUTICALS
      George Yancopoulos, co-founder, president, chief scientific officer

      I’d want to have a course about the Zen Buddhism concept of “beginner’s mind” and teaching students how to develop and retain an attitude of open-mindedness in order to not be trapped by conventional wisdom or what is and is not believed to be “possible.”

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      > SentinelOne

      SECURITY SOFTWARE
      Tomer Weingarten, CEO

      The cybersecurity skills gap is presenting tremendous challenges to the global business community and at the same time, tremendous opportunity to the future workforce. In order to put both businesses and students in the best position to succeed in years to come, cybersecurity and computer science skills must be taught from a young age. The most effective cybercriminals are adept in computer science and also show great creativity in bypassing legacy defense systems and security personnel. In my class, I would provide students the building blocks to become successful cybersecurity professionals but would allow them to use their natural intellect to develop and operate technologies with an eye toward creativity and innovation. 

      Course Title: The Basics of Hacking

      Course Description: In order to understand cybersecurity, students must be taught the techniques and ways of adversaries. There are two fundamental problems: 1) not enough people who understand cybersecurity to fill the open jobs, and 2) cybersecurity education must evolve to be tangible, field-related operational and experiential learning.

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      > ServiceNow

      CLOUD COMPUTING
      Tracey Racette Fritcher, global director, HR transformation

      Course Title: Tech of Tomorrow’s Businesses, Today 

      This class would focus on designing human-centric technologies and applications that will help organizations retain both customers and employees and run their businesses more effectively and efficiently. Students would learn skills critical for succeeding in a digital era from both a business (sales, profit and loss, customer service, workforce enablement) and technology (code development, data analysis, predictive analytics, AI and machine learning) perspective. Students would come away from this class capable of connecting on a shared vision of serving others, whether customers or employees, boosted by the power of technology. The class would also introduce design-thinking concepts, explore journey mapping, and showcase how to construct technology that helps organizations be more productive and profitable and employees do their best work. Additionally, the class would cover interpersonal skills like communication and teamwork principles. These emotional intelligence skills are essential to helping people develop into strong leaders. With these skills, future generations will be able to put humans at the center of work and utilize technology to free up time and allow for creativity to flourish.

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      > Verizon

      TELECOMMUNICATIONS
      Justina Nixon-Saintil, director of corporate social responsibility

      I would design a course that incorporates emerging technologies to give students ownership of their learning and to expose them to future careers. Instead of reading about the solar system, I want students to be in the solar system and engage in hands-on activities that transform curiosity into content mastery. In order to do that, it’s more vital than ever for teachers to be equipped with the tools and professional development they need to create classrooms where students can be creative and willing to take intellectual risks through technology. The good news is, we’re in the process of bringing these kinds of experiences to life in our Verizon Innovative Learning schools that have next-gen 5G technology.

      Assistant Managing Editor Kevin Bushweller contributed to this article.
      A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2020 edition of Education Week as What High School Course Would You Design?

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