schools of the future

What does the ‘future of work’ mean for schools? Big claims leave educators with more questions than answers

PHOTO: Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

“It’s time to update our schools so they work better for today’s students,” Stacey Childress, the head of NewSchools Venture Fund, said earlier this month at the organization’s annual summit — a who’s who of charter school leaders, their funders, their advocates, and others promoting school choice or education technology.

“With the twin forces of automation and globalization just absolutely changing the very nature of opportunity and work, this is more important than ever.”

It’s a message that’s hard to miss.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently told the Wall Street Journal that schools need to change because by the time current kindergarteners reach the job market, 65 percent of jobs will be newly invented. The XQ Initiative to reinvent high school claims that the “jobs of tomorrow will look totally different than those of today or the recent past.” A special report in Education Week on the future of work says that “technological change, globalization, and climate instability are happening at an accelerating pace all across the world.”

These warnings of dramatic change are increasingly being used to promote advocates’ favored solutions for improving schools, and the results are trickling down into real classrooms — not just through the expansion of established career and technical education programs, for example, but with calls to upend traditional schooling altogether.

Dig into these claims about our changing economy, though, and you end up knee-deep in mixed messages and muddled statistics. While there is good reason to think that America’s job market will look different in the years to come, some of the data being used to make that point in the education world is overstated or misleading.

That’s leaving educators and policymakers wondering how best to prepare students, especially since one commonly promoted strategy, expanding the use of technology in schools, may be promising but is largely unproven as a way to improve learning.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an education economist at Northwestern University, agrees the economy is evolving and schools need to pay attention. But calls to respond with dramatic overhauls are worrying, too.

“The risk of doing it wrong and really making a disaster is bigger,” she said.

Some researchers suggest substantial change in the economy is likely in the near future.

Leaders trying to understand the connection between education and the workforce often turn to two reports that model the future economy: a 2013 study out of Oxford — which found that 47 percent of U.S. employment was at risk of being automated out of existence at some point — and a more recent report by the consulting firm McKinsey.

Michael Chui, one of the authors of the McKinsey report, argues that there’s a good chance that the American economy will face substantial change.

“Roughly 50 percent of the time people are at work, they’re doing activities which theoretically could be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology,” Chui told attendees at the conference hosted by NewSchools Venture Fund, which funds other education organizations. “These technologies will affect everyone.”

Another recent study, by Harvard economist David Deming, found that the skills employers prioritized had changed somewhat in the 2000s to place greater emphasis on social skills, though mathematical skills were still highly valued.

“Our best guess is that what people are going to be good at, that robots aren’t good at, are these non-cognitive skills: caring for people, getting along,” said Schanzenbach.

There are a number of reasons to temper those predictions, though.

Those findings sound pretty intimidating. But the fine print of some of these studies suggest their conclusions are somewhat less clear.

Both the McKinsey and Oxford statistics refer to jobs or tasks that could, in theory, be automated — neither predicts that they all necessarily will be. “We make no attempt to estimate how many jobs will actually be automated,” write the Oxford researchers, pointing out that many factors affect whether a technology is adopted, including cost and government regulation.

The McKinsey report predicts that by 2030, 23 percent of current work hours will be automated, far from the 50 percent theoretical figure, which Chui said likely won’t happen “any time soon.”

There’s another reason to think the pace of oncoming change may be overstated. Although it doesn’t get much attention in education circles, economists are increasingly worried about declining, not rising, rates of productivity and innovation, referred to as “economic dynamism.” There have been fewer people moving between states or switching jobs, fewer start-ups, and generally sluggish economic growth compared to before the Great Recession.

Meanwhile, predictions by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics for professions poised to add the most new jobs between 2016 and 2026 include software engineers but also personal-care aides, fast food cooks, nurses, janitors, and waiters. Those aren’t the positions that are typically the focus of conversations about the future of work.

Where that leaves teachers and schools is not entirely clear, and some say that ambiguity makes preparing students all the more challenging.

“I don’t think the onus is on schools to change to meet the needs of an economy that’s full of uncertainty,” said Nate Bowling, an AP Government teacher in Tacoma, Washington and a former state teacher of the year. “There should be a certain skill set that we endow students with … but [to prepare for specific jobs], what we really need is school–industry partnerships.”

Some frequently cited stats are misleading or wrong.

There’s another problem with the prevailing narrative about jobs of the future: some advocates have a habit of relying on bad data.

One statistic in particular has gained a lot of traction: more than half of the jobs of 2030 “have not even been invented yet.” This figure — or something like it — has been repeated over and over by DeVos, by North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, and by Childress and her organization, among many others.

They often cite specific reports, but when Chalkbeat previously tried to track down the basis of those numbers we hit a dead end. The claims rely on unexplained predictions by “experts” or even popular YouTube videos, but not specific analyses. (A spokesperson for NewSchools noted that Childress described this prediction as “aggressive” and said that the group relies on a number of different sources to inform its work, including its own interviews with teachers and students.)

The McKinsey report suggests, based on historical data, that just 8 or 9 percent of jobs in 2030 will be new occupations.

Here’s another common but misleading claim: that millennials are changing jobs at faster rates than the previous generation. In fact, more comprehensive federal data shows that the latest generation is actually switching jobs at a similar or slightly lower rate than previous ones did at the same age.

“If you want to generalize about philanthropy a bit, there’s this tendency time and again to make inflated or headline-grabbing claims about either what they’re going to accomplish or why there’s this enormous need for these investments,” said Sarah Reckhow, who studies education philanthropy at Michigan State University.

Some say the solution is to bring more tech into schools. Will that help?

Even if you accept the idea that the economy is about to see substantial change, what are schools supposed to do? And are schools able to do it?

Some of the ideas that get discussed include placing a greater emphasis on teaching social skills, changing accountability systems to focus less on standardized test results (and thus better measuring those social skills), and adding job training programs for careers with the most promising outlooks.

Another consistent one is to expand the use of technology in schools — to better engage students in traditional academics or to more directly prepare students for jobs requiring tech skills.

NewSchools, for instance, recently launched a future of work initiative that awards $50,000 to $150,000 grants to “entrepreneurs developing technology-enabled” products “that will help [students] succeed in the jobs of tomorrow.” The McKinsey report on future jobs suggests embracing “digital learning resources,” which it describes as more flexible than traditional classroom setups. Teaching computer science is also increasingly popular, backed by groups like Code.org that say students will benefit by gaining both computational thinking and career skills.

And some of the same groups or leaders emphasizing concerns about the future of work are also enthusiasts for technology-based “personalized learning.”

“Whether it’s technology as a subject matter to be taught more effectively in schools or technology as a medium for delivering education … I see it as a revolving set of arguments that tend to coalesce around the same underlying strategy and principle,” said Reckhow. “There can be really good reasons for [expanding technology], but it would be nice to have good data to support that.”

Although advocates can point to some encouraging evidence about the use of technology in schools, research is still limited and benefits are sometimes overstated.

“Whatever investments we make in ed tech tools, we want to be very thoughtful about how these tools are implemented in the classroom and whether or not they make teachers lives easier versus harder,” said NewSchools managing partner Tonika Cheek Clayton.

NewSchools sees another potential use for technology in helping students learn about the workforce.

“Ed tech can provide a platform and an opportunity for students to connect with professionals that are outside of their school environment,” Clayton said.

A recent study found mixed evidence that this sort of approach could work. A partially virtual career mentorship program in New York City slightly improved 10th grade students’ self-reported critical thinking and college aspirations, but it had no effect on students’ grades, attendance, credits earned, or their likelihood of doing things like studying for the ACT or visiting a college.

Childress of NewSchools argues that innovation means trying new things even when there is limited evidence. “For those of us who are working towards steady improvement, [we should] resist saying that innovators shouldn’t try anything that isn’t already proven,” she said at this month’s summit. NewSchools also promotes broader ideas like improving access to college and career counseling and using “experiential learning” to connect school and work.

Bowling says certain basics are still overlooked in conversations about preparing students for the future: proposals to increase school funding to pay for things like highly qualified teachers, more guidance counselors, or the hardware that makes technology programs viable.

“We want students to learn computer science,” he said. “OK – who’s literate in computer science [and] is going to teach computer science for the salary that we pay K-12 teachers in the United States right now?”

Charter strike

Chicago’s second charter strike ends with pay wins for teachers and paraprofessionals

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
Teachers and supporters march in front of Chicago International Charter Schools' corporate offices on the fifth day of the strike.

Chicago’s second charter school strike ended early Monday with the teachers union winning concessions on pay raises for teachers and paraprofessionals that will put their salaries on par with educators at non-charter schools.

Under the deal, reached overnight after two weeks without classes, the union said Monday that teachers at four Chicago International charter schools, known as CICS, will see an immediate 8 percent pay bump. Over the next four years, their salaries will rise more substantially.

Paraprofessionals will be brought up to district pay scales immediately, the union said.

Students and teachers at the four schools, are managed by Civitas Education Partners, will return to class Tuesday. CICS oversees 14 schools in all a complex organization that includes multiple managers.

The deal ends the the latest display of the Chicago Teachers Union’s organizing muscle ahead of several high-stakes contract negotiations, including contract with Chicago Public Schools that expires in the spring, and several other charter contracts still in talks.

The contract will apply only to the four schools that have a union and were on strike: Northtown Academy, Ralph Ellison, Wrightwood, and Chicago Quest. But a spokesperson for CICS said Monday that the organization was “committed to equity” across its other 10 campuses and is in internal discussions about how the bargaining will impact teachers and classrooms at its non-unionized schools.

CICS had warned during the strike that it could face bankruptcy if it implemented all of the union’s demands. In a statement Monday, the network said that the issue of “limited funding” was an “unfortunate reality in public education.”

“In order to pay for such a significant salary increase, we will be forced to make certain cuts and compromises,” the statement said. “For example, we will likely need to limit the number of instructional coaches, assistant principals and other valuable support staff members.”

The tentative agreement brings to an end a contentious nine-day strike that started with picket lines and escalated late last week when dozens of teachers blocked the lobby of the Loop high-rise housing the offices of accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The board president of CICS, Laura Thonn, is a partner in the Chicago offices of the firm.

Friday also was payday for teachers, who received substantially smaller checks than they would have had they been working.

The teachers union and CICS said that the tentative agreement also guarantees assistants in kindergarten, first-, and second-grade classrooms; paid parental leave for teachers; and a slightly shorter work day. The tentative agreement cuts the workday by 15 minutes but does not reduce instructional time, CICS said Monday.

One sticking point was also class size. The tentative agreement sets a “goal” of 28 students per class with a clause that limits class sizes to 30. Overcrowding at district schools has been a point of intensifying discussion this year, too, with a new report from the group Parents 4 Teachers showing that more than 1,000 classrooms in kindergarten through eighth-grade in Chicago have more than 30 students.

“We have finally won a contract that our schools, students, and our staff deserve,” said Jen Conant, a CICS Northtown teacher and member of the bargaining team.

The tentative contract will now go to the broader union membership for a vote.

Charter strike

On Chicago charter strike, how far will the teachers union go?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Picket signs used by protesting strikers from the Chicago International Charter Schools, who were targeting charter network CEO Elizabeth Shaw on Feb. 11, 2019.

Chicago’s second charter strike has now stretched over nine days. Beyond picket lines and hashtags on social media, the Chicago Teachers Union has blocked a lobby of a Loop high rise, delivered labor-themed Valentines to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office at City Hall, and even wrangled appearances from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

How hard will the union push and what’s at stake in its efforts to win a new contract for teachers?

Related: Multiple CEOs, multiple layers: Strike puts charter management under microscope

It could be the future of charter organizing in Chicago, experts say. A victory could “buoy a local wave of new charter school strikes,” said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But if the contract doesn’t bring home the goods, failure could cast a pall over future organizing at dozens of Chicago charters — and untold numbers elsewhere.

Bruno expects in coming days to see increased pressure on members of Chicago International’s board, and possibly even a civil disobedience confrontation that ends in arrests. “They’ll look for ways to demonstrate that the ownership and leaders of this charter operator are not people who are invested in schools,” Bruno said, while “looking for ways to move the employer at the bargaining table.”

But the union’s strategy is risky.

Private employers can permanently replace strikers because its teachers are governed by the National Labor Relations Act, not the Illinois Labor Relations Act which protects public employees.

Chicago International, where teachers at four schools are on strike, has dug in its heels, arguing that granting union demands would bankrupt the network within a few years. “They want a compensation that is fiscally irresponsible for us to agree to,” said LeeAndra Khan, CEO of Civitas Education Partners, one of a handful of management companies contracting to run some of the network’s 14 schools.

The strike also comes in the final weeks of Chicago’s mayoral election. The union has backed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, but critics wonder if the union’s effort in maintaining the strike means it’s paying less attention to getting Preckwinkle into office.

But the union has tried-and-true tactics, Bruno said, including political pressure and escalating protests that have helped win tough contract battles in the past. It’s become more combative since the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, won leadership of the union in 2010 with a promise to fight against educational inequalities.

That approach helped teachers in the 2012 strike, when thousands of union members went out on a weeklong strike that captured national headlines and pushed their demands beyond just wages and benefits to broader school-quality factors.

Union political pressure also worked in December, when 500 unionized teachers at Acero charter schools in Chicago walked off the job during the nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers.

Along with pickets throughout the four-day strike at schools across the city, the union also brought attention to how the network had used its political connections to expand. Strikers stormed the office of powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas thick with Acero schools. Burke then called the network’s CEO and pressed for an agreement. The strike ended shortly afterward.

The Chicago Teachers Union is also known for its staying power in strikes. In 2012, teachers stayed on strike an extra day to make sure that most members were able to review line items of the new contract before it was signed, despite pressure from Emanuel to end the strike. That strike lasted a total of seven days.

In the case of the Chicago International strike, Bruno said the charter network may shoulder the greater risk. The network, which oversees 14 schools run by five charter management organizations, some of which subcontract management to a third operator, has argued that meeting the union’s demands for wages could push the entire network into bankruptcy.

A strong contract that benefits teachers could also push teachers at the network’s 10 non-unionized schools to push for higher wages, Bruno said. “That could be a problem for the employer.”

While the union may be using tactics it has found successful in the past, management of Chicago International doesn’t respond to the same pressures, organizers acknowledged.

If the campaign doesn’t win raises for teachers, or results in cuts to the classroom, Bruno said it could risk slowing down the broader movement to unionize charters. “It gives teachers across the charter school system pause. They are no less interested in having a collective voice but they will remain somewhat uncertain that the union is the appropriate venue for that,” he said.

Richard Berg, an organizer in the Chicago Teacher Union’s charter division, said that because Chicago International and Civitas aren’t political in the same way that Acero is, the union has shifted to focus to the network’s unusual management structure and its connection to big business.

“If you look at their board, it’s not education people or community people. It’s corporate lawyers and money people,” Berg said. “Our strategy has been to say: OK, well, what is going to influence money people to care about children? The morality of it.”

A federal mediator already attends negotiations between Chicago International and the union.  The network requested federal mediation a month and a half ago, and since then a representative from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been present both at bargaining and in the discussions held independently on each side.

Both teachers and management blame the delay in coming to an agreement on the other side.

“We are determined to make these schools right for our students,” Berg of the union said. “We hope [management] will do the right thing sooner rather than later, because we have thousands of students that are missing school because of management’s intransigence.”

The network, meanwhile, said it’s focused on finding an agreement in negotiations to get back to the classroom. “We are focused on trying to end the strike so that our kids can get back in school,” Khan said.