Although the notion of a seamless education pipeline is inherently appealing, it remains a metaphor far removed from reality. The idea that the simple tightening of connections between PreK-12 and higher education will yield a continuous flow of preparation is a gross oversimplification at best. While important, public education and colleges/universities are joined by other entities such as federal and state departments of education; teachers unions; and teacher preparation programs that contribute to the overall drippiness of our current education system. These units and others that provide resources, policies, or expectations related to education must also be sealed together. But before we reach for the proverbial soldering gun, we need to make sure that all the pieces are in the right order.
The efficacy of a pipeline, after all, lies in its ability to channel matter to a specified location. It is that end location that serves as the driver for the entire system and determines the length and complexity of the plumbing. With regard to the education pipeline, we have seen a gradual lengthening over recent years. While education departments continue to focus on state assessments and high school graduation rates, they are extending their purview to include college readiness and participation. And although all agree that higher education represents a critical pathway, many have suggested adult workforce trends as the appropriate focus for reforms, implying that rather than PreK to college, the education pipeline should extend from “cradle to grave.”
By extending the pipeline to include workforce development it shifts our collective focus to the notion of “workforce readiness” and behooves us to identify the skills and dispositions that are critical for students, graduates, and employees. Clearly to be competitive in the global economy we need graduates who are innovators, problem solvers, and thinkers; men and women who can address the complex challenges and opportunities that continue to emerge and evolve within our communities- local, national, and abroad. Clarifying these dispositions and skill sets may be just what we need to reconfigure our education pipeline in a manner that will prepare our students for success- not by magic or exception, but by design.
Once our expectations are operationalized we can begin the task of working backwards to align and tighten. If we are serious about strengthening our economic competitiveness, workforce development must be front and center as we examine job trends and accompanying educational profiles, and push these expectations down through higher education and PreK-12 curricula. In addition to traditional knowledge competencies we must also create opportunities for the development of soft skills including critical thinking, interpersonal communication, and metacognitive strategies that will allow students to contribute as active participants in our evolving economy. And while we are tackling the curriculum it is also imperative that we align teacher preparation programs to ensure the development of teachers who are able to cultivate these dispositions and competencies- for we simply cannot prepare students without teachers who are prepared themselves.
Is it really possible to reconfigure a pipeline that is so complex and antiquated? Absolutely, and it is through this alignment ONLY that the system can operate efficiently and be evaluated in a meaningful way. But clearly, the system cannot overhaul itself. Regardless of their best intentions, the individual pipes lack the power to transcend their respective missions and goals. A job of this scale requires an architect who while knowledgeable about all components, maintains a clear and unyielding focus on the final vision. It also calls for a team of expert technicians who can map backwards from the endpoint, aligning and tightening as they go.
Clearly this task of retrofitting our entire education system is a daunting one. And understandably many may be more comfortable continuing with the status quo. But if this is the route that our country continues to take with regard to education, then our only hope- at the risk of taking the plumbing metaphor too far- is to invest in a serious pair of waders.