The space race “crisis” of the 1950s and ‘60s led the U.S. to invest heavily in its public education system, and to the passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (NDEA). That legislation prompted a major shift in our instructional focus that ushered more students toward careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Today, our economy still reaps the benefits of those changes and investments, which sparked a revolution in innovation, led to the development of numerous scientific fields, and to the creation of millions of jobs worldwide.
Still, it could be argued that the space race was not an actual crisis, but an invented one, motivated by a political rivalry. The crises that loom over the U.S. and the world today, however, are very real and very concerning.
As we write this, humanity is in the midst of multiple emergencies. For more than a year we have endured a global pandemic. Climate change is impacting every system of our planet. An unprecedented number of people are unemployed, while artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation are already changing the job market.
The U.S. was decisive in its response to the space race crisis—just as we must be today. The only way to achieve another revolution in innovation is through complete transformation of our system. We must re-examine whether our efforts are actually preparing students for the world in which they will live and, equally important, whether we are preparing them to make adult decisions that are environmentally sustainable and socially responsible.
The Function of K-12 Education
College and career readiness is a term frequently used in K-12 education to describe our industry’s goal for all students. That is to say, when our students embark on their post-secondary journeys, they should have what they need to succeed in whichever journey they choose.
Our education system should be our best effort to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and tools that they need to be prosperous, productive, and employed citizens. Unfortunately, due to our looming crises, the conditions in which all our systems, including education, exist have changed. We need all students to behave sustainably and responsibly, and, ultimately, participate in a “green” economy—no matter which college or career pathway they choose.
Developments in Education
Over the past 10 years, states across the nation have adopted new standards in all content areas. To facilitate more authentic learning, many states have aligned their own standards, and developed frameworks that foster interdisciplinary teaching and learning. However, one critical content area, Career Technical Education (CTE), has yet to be aligned with other content standards and frameworks.
While content standards are generally written across grades K-12, career education is typically considered only a high school endeavor. As a result, career education is not woven into the fabric of K-12 education, often leaving younger students to ask the age old question, “Why am I learning this?” Here, educators have an opportunity to leverage the successes of environmental education and racial equity education (which have been aligned with other subject areas in several states) to integrate its important tenets into the instruction our students receive.
Career education should be the lens through which students view the purpose for learning. By providing this lens, educators could reframe instruction into something more relevant and focused on helping students get jobs that earn a good wage and benefit both humanity and the planet. By expanding career education into the K-8 space we would better prepare students for their high school CTE courses, pique students’ interests in their postsecondary options and support them in making sustainably-minded decisions, such as resource and energy conservation, that are internalized and taken with them into the workforce.
There is great potential for the integration of career education with other content areas. During art classes, students could emulate artists who focus on the promotion of climate action and who use environmentally-sustainable media. During physical education classes, students could learn about athletic professionals who are implementing green practices in college athletic departments and professional sports. Health education classes could support students’ healthy life choices, such as eating sustainably-sourced and plant-based foods, while they learn about professions and innovations in the health science, medical technology, hospitality, tourism and recreation industries. Students could explore the sustainable practices of ancient and indigenous peoples during their history courses, and brainstorm ways to implement those same practices in the modern workplace. If we’re creative enough, the possibilities are endless.
CTE Gets a Bad Rap
All U.S. states have adopted some form of CTE program at the high school level. Generally, these programs are aligned to their local industry sectors, and are designed to provide students with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in their journey toward college and career.
High school CTE programs, however, exist on the fringe, and are stigmatized as an academic pathway for students who are not destined to go to a four-year college or university. We believe that if we are to better prepare our students for their post-secondary experiences, we must shift career education from the fringe to the mainstream. If we were to provide our students with a better chance of prospering, we must expand the range of career education to go beyond high school CTE programs and into general K-12 education, and, at the same time, motivate students to implement sustainable career practices.
Careers/Jobs/Trades Are the Future
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education is in turmoil. Prospective students are starting to ask why they would go into long-term debt to earn college and advanced degrees before they can even start to earn a paycheck, when less expensive post-secondary credential and certificate options exist as viable alternatives. According to Credential Engine, there are 967,734 credentials awaiting soon-to-be employees. About 163,000 students have already registered for IBM’s SkillsBuild program, and Google recently launched its Google Career Certificates. The successful completion of these credential and certificate programs could also lead to high-paying, high-growth jobs in much the same way as a college degree.
The Way Forward
Schools are returning to on-campus learning after a global crisis changed the way our students understand the world and experience education. We believe that educational leaders should capitalize on this as an opportunity to support students’ exploration of career options. Showing students how to make environmentally-sustainable and socially-responsible decisions after they graduate from high school is what our future needs.
To that end, work must begin to align CTE standards and practices with Common Core, Next Generation Science and other content standards and frameworks. In terms of classroom instruction, several studies from George Lucas Educational Research Foundation note that project-based learning (PBL), which is interdisciplinary by nature, significantly improves student performance and engagement. The way forward is to engage students with standards-aligned, career-directed, PBL, where they can explore green careers, jobs, and trades, while further developing their sustainable mindset.
Learning from History
We use the space race as a model for the type of transformation modern education programs must undergo. The purposeful, deliberate, and strategic overhaul of the U.S. education system during the 1950s and ‘60s should serve as a blueprint for modern day politicians and educators who understand that we must be forward thinking if we are to respond to the crises and challenges that exist today, and that will exist in the future.
We must re-imagine and redesign our education system to prepare our students to be part of the green economy, in whichever pathway, college, career, job or trade that they choose, but ensure that the choice is made with an environmentally-sustainable and socially-responsible lens. Only then might we have a fighting chance to survive and thrive in an uncertain future.