President Donald Trump has proposed combining the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor. After asking educators for their opinions about the merger, Education Week reported that “educators, by and large, don’t seem to be fans of this idea.” Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has a different view. In a June 22 Washington Post op-ed defending the merger, he wrote, “Because education and careers are inextricably bound, we need to take an ‘all one system’ perspective that connects the education and career dots from middle school through college and early careers.”
Carnevale is right that a large majority of students—and their families—value education primarily because they want better careers. In a 2015 national poll of incoming college students from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, 85 percent of respondents ranked being “able to get a better job” as a very important reason for pursuing a college degree. But he is mistaken when he advocates merging the departments of Education and Labor. Too many of education’s other gifts are at stake.
Education’s purpose is more than career preparation. Leaving curricular decisions up to employers is not healthy for America. For example, Thomas Jefferson’s rationale for supporting public education was the need for an informed citizenry in a healthy democracy. Today, the lack of an informed citizenry may be our country’s biggest problem. Only 36 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the last midterm elections four years ago.
Leaving curricular decisions up to employers is not healthy for America."
Schools are responsible for preparing students for active roles as public citizens, as I have argued in these pages before. The 2018 “Brown Center Report on American Education” from the Brookings Institution shows very wide gaps in students’ knowledge of civics by race, ethnicity, and income. As racial and ethnic minorities grow in population and well-deserved political power, these gaps remain persistent and troubling.
All youths should have the experience of debating economics and tariffs, taxes and deficits, poverty and the safety net, social media and false news, and more. They should be able to explain the fight over the U.S. Supreme Court based on what they learned in history class. Science and geography should inform their views about climate change and immigration.
Students also require access to the liberal arts so that they can lead a full life. For the past two years in a row, Americans’ expected longevity has declined, in part because of suicide and opioids. In addition, many students report increasing stress levels. These problems are not going to be cured by dropping art and music from the curriculum. Teachers and faculty must make the connection between, say, Shakespeare and the new challenges that youngsters face in their daily lives. In that way, educators can preserve our culture from what David Brooks identifies as “the soulless pragmatism of the machine age.”
In his op-ed, Carnevale rightly cites “successful transitions from youth dependency to independent adulthood and successful family formation” as one appropriate goal of schools and college. He points out the implications of the country’s economic transformation: Before the 1980s, the median young adult worker earned enough to live independently and form a family by the time he or she was 26. Today, that median has risen to 34. (In an email exchange with me, Carnevale shared that he is using an annual income of greater than $35,000 for those below 45 years old and above $45,000 for those older than 45 for these calculations.)
The majority of education reformers over the past decade have focused on college and career readiness. But in practice, their actual operational goal often seemed to be sending all high school graduates to a four-year college. This goal was faulty for two reasons. As is well known, starting college is not synonymous with graduating from college. Just over half of students who enroll in a higher education institution earn a college certificate or degree by their 26th birthday.
Secondly, many college faculty are more invested in their research and/or old class notes than in actually preparing their students for today’s workforce. Many departments of mathematics still refuse to embrace statistics or computer science, chasing calculus-for-all rather than skills more valued in today’s workplace. Colleges graduate engineers who cannot write a coherent memo or report. Students in many disciplines are deficient in their ability to communicate orally and, especially, to make a public presentation, despite its professional importance. The deficiency extends to other so-called soft skills, including collaboration, creativity, life-long learning, and real-world problem-solving. For many years, employers have complained that college graduates are not work-ready.
The president’s merger proposal is unlikely to be adopted by Congress. However, educators should take advantage of the public discussion to make the case that good schools offer much more than career preparation.