Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Education for Economic Development: Rethinking The High School

The work and careers are changing. As most process-based jobs get automated, it seems the winners will be those with greater intellectual skills. In the meantime, the salary premium for college graduates have risen dramatically - mainly as a result of non-graduates falling precipitously. This is taken as evidence of centrality of college education: Everyone should be able to go to college, has become the political mantra.

This is good for colleges themselves and hence, they have promoted the idea. And, as the educated usually takes upon themselves the role of society's critic-in-chief, the conclusion has not really be questioned. However, while the poor countries followed the cue and started expansion of college education - and, because the state does not have money, this means a poorer public education and enormous expansion of terribly bad private education - it is worth looking at the phenomena closely and exploring its wisdom.

At one level, work has become more complex and cognitively challenging. But this may or may not be the justification for college education. The way work has gotten complex is not by requiring greater knowledge, or at least, not always. It has become more challenging as it requires continuous learning, more collaboration and greater abilities of connecting with people. College education, particularly in the new private institutions in developing countries, is not necessarily geared towards the development of such abilities.

Rather, it often does the opposite. A college education is often about knowledge - why else an Indian college student would have to spend 6 days a week, 8 hours a day in the confines of a classroom - and high stakes examinations that come before and after such training. The idea may be that finishing college demonstrates the ability to learn more complex subjects, but the form of mastery is completely irrelevant to the emerging form of work. 

The college, in its current form, is actually a sorting mechanism, a middle class branding machine that differentiates those who can afford to defer working from those who can't. That way, the college is a tool to keep the society roughly as it is - finding a 'meritocratic' justification for the exclusion of the already excluded.

It has always been so - its current form may have persisted for the last 150 years - but we are at an inflection point at the workplace and it is worth looking at the justification yet again. This is worthwhile particularly as college-induced inequalities are being resented and challenged - we see this in Brexit, Trump and even in internal rebellions of Labour Party and many other places - and the whole idea of professional society looks as fragile as ever. It is even more important, from the global perspective, because the developing nations, including India, African Nations and many others, want to replicate the college-induced prosperity of the Western nations, and sinking faster into social divisions and wasting its abilities.

Rejuvenating the High School may indeed be the alternative here. One of the reasons High School was created is to prepare people for technical careers, before the expansion of college education stole it as a mere preparatory stage for college education. So it is now - in countries like India, it has almost no significance other than preparing for High Stakes College Entrance examinations - and this is a further evidence of wastefulness the fetish with colleges impose on a society.

This is indeed a better alternative than the efforts at building alternatives such as Skills education. This may have worked within countries with abundant industrial jobs, such as Germany or United States, or more recently in China, but this model is unlikely to work in a country where jobs are yet to be created. In other settings, such as in India, these are seen as second class qualifications - and a college graduate is often preferred over those with a skills training (which has given rise to absurd ideas of vocational degree programmes, such as Ph D in Plumbing - I only exaggarate mildly - which, if real, will make Ph D meaningless and plumbing bad).

A much better option than pouring money into Skills Education in the hope that the availability of 'skilled people' will create industries - the cart-before-the-horse solution at a time when the horse has bolted - is to rethink the High School and changing it, from a mere instrument of college preparation (in fact, preparation for college selection) to preparation for entry into adult life. This is what it was meant to be. This would be more inclusive than a two-track education system, and affordable by reducing the number of years in education, for those who want to enter work early. A country like India, with vast numbers and urgent need to increase productivity, can then open up the College sector for experimentation - particularly in terms of Online and Work-based degrees - and develop a Lifelong Learning Infrastructure around the same.

Rethinking the High School, I shall argue, is one of the most obvious solutions to Economic Development, but this is being deliberately ignored. We talk about the strong correlation between College Choice and Career Success, but deny that this proves an even stronger correlation between success at High School and Career Success.  The recent implosion of wages of High School Diploma holders do not any way prove the value of the college - though it is presented as such - but rather that this has merely morphed into a transitory state on the way to college. The absurd drive for skills training as a separate proposition merely accept the paradigm of college as a middle class branding tool as it is, and exclude people rather than including them. And, finally, ignoring the role of High School keeps the scope of innovation in Higher Education limited.



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