In recent years, business leaders have shown an increasing interest in K-12 education policy, organizing an increasing number of advocacy groups to promote education reforms. The members of these influential groups have become prominent voices in education policy, commanding the attention of government and education leaders and influencing decisions that previously were reserved to locally elected officials.
One such group, Prosperity 2020, declares it is committed to education for “building a qualified workforce for Utah’s future.” The Governor’s office echoes this in 2016 as “Talent Ready Utah” is announced, stating, “The program seeks to align our efforts to provide a pipeline of future talent and meet the needs of Utah businesses.” The US Chamber of Commerce and many other business and government organizations refer to students as “human capital” and push for a focus on “career readiness.” In the talking points repeated at education conferences, business meetings, government hearings and in the media, education is highlighted exclusively for its value in creating workers and growing the economy.
This focus has neglected to recognize that families want something much deeper out of their children’s education. Indeed, the deeper features of education actually benefit society – including the economy – more than a single-minded focus on producing workers with job skills. The approach which business groups are currently advocating is centralized and prescriptive, and as such will diminish the entrepreneurial spirit in adults because it will diminish the opportunity, and consequently the ability, of children and youth to exercise agency in pursuing their educational goals.
Business leaders would be wise to take a step back, recognize these deeper purposes, and return them to their rightful place in education priorities. Continuing in the path of advocating for a centrally-planned curriculum focused on economic ends will cause their efforts to fall short and eventually undermine what they’re aiming for.
Instead of promoting the alignment of education to workforce needs, business leaders should use their influence to promote the alignment of education policy with family interests. Aligning education with “workforce needs” and centrally-directed approaches to education are features of planned economies, not free ones. A free society is essential for thriving free markets. Education policy which focuses on developing work skills undermines the foundation of agency necessary to support free societies. Education policy which focuses on facilitating the exercise of agency supports the foundation of free societies, and thereby free economies.
A vibrant free economy depends upon independent individuals pursuing their freely-chosen paths. This starts with children being educated to their potential as seen and directed by their parents. Children are best-served when families are supported in seeking the education they desire in a locally-directed setting, without mandates which restrict them to a mandated set of choices predetermined by distant bureaucrats or committee members.
With this in mind, we offer the following considerations to facilitate better alignment of business interests with family interests for better education delivery:
1) Business Interests in Education. The bottom line for business interests in education is to have a “workforce” of individuals who have become:
- Skilled in specific tasks (e.g., programming).
- Intentional, industrious (agency, work ethic).
- Adaptable, flexible, teachable.
- Ethical, honest, “others-oriented.”
Some business leaders seem to be only aware of the need for #1. But without #2-4, business growth, innovation, and impact are stunted, as is the free society which created the environment in which business thrives. It also fertilizes the seedbed of a free society.
One important note on point #2. A new trend in education reform is to try to teach and measure “grit.” Grit, defined as persistence or strength of character, is without question a desirable quality. However, if measured in the context of compulsory, centrally-directed, economically-focused schooling, odds are very high that grit will come to mean persistence at jumping through required hoops, rather than persistence at pursuing meaningful, self-actualized goals.
2) Family Interests in Education. Family interests in education are many. A few (sequenced for convenience, not importance) might include guiding children to acquire:
- Identity (which develops from freedom and agency).
- Autonomy (which is closely tied to identity’s desire to discover itself).
- Intentionality, industry (agency, work ethic).
- Morality, honesty, “others-oriented” behavior.
- Love of truth and beauty.
3) Overlap. There is significant overlap between family and business interests.
- A balanced focus on all aspects of human development will impact business growth, innovation, and impact better than a focus on business interest #1 alone. In addition, the deeper focus fertilizes the seedbed of a free society. British philosopher C.S. Lewis addressed the necessity of thoughtfully balancing the need for appropriate training with the greater need for education when he said, “If education is beaten by training, civilization dies.”
- Protecting the educational freedom of families & students through local control of education decisions – including “content choice,” not just “school choice” – allows the student to practice working intentionally, or in other words, to exercise their agency. On the other hand, compulsory, centrally-managed education has the opposite effect, potentially stunting the work ethic.
- A careful focus on studying quality literature that develops character – and not just social activism, which is the current trend – can more effectively achieve #4 than the current widespread approach of “character” programs.
- Local communities, with their generally shared values and daily activities, are best equipped to determine how to nurture the qualities which families want, and which ultimately businesses will benefit from.
As the business community seeks to improve the deficiencies it sees in education, it needs to consider where the deficiencies originated. Careful review of the situation will point to increasing centralization over the past five decades, with a simultaneously increasing focus on aligning education with workforce needs.
The remedy can’t be a stronger dose of the same poison. Rather than solidifying the centralization through support of national standards and workforce alignment, businesses should champion the freeing of parents, self-organized in local communities, to reclaim their rightful place in cultivating the character and skills of their young people through formal education. This would actively preserve the environment from which the dynamic modern business world sprang, and perpetuate its best features.