How can the GOP can develop a skilled workforce? Support the teaching infrastructure of public higher education
September 20, 2016
As Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature consider the request for $42.5 million in new state funds for the University of Wisconsin System in the 2017-2019 biennial budget, they should not only accept this proposal but also embrace the teaching and learning functions of Wisconsin’s colleges and universities as the centerpiece of the state’s workforce development strategy.
The reasons for placing teaching at the heart of the state and even the nation's strategy to produce highly skilled workers - which is one of the key issues driving today's political dialogue - are simple, compelling, and bipartisan.
First, employers are seeking applicants who not only have technical expertise in their fields but also are proficient problem-solvers, communicators, lifelong learners, and team players. When my research group traveled throughout Wisconsin studying the so-called “skills gap” we repeatedly heard how these competencies - which are variously called non-cognitive skills, 21st century skills, or worst of all, soft skills - were in short supply. One manufacturing executive told us, “When people ask what keeps you from hiring someone, it’s not that they don’t have technical skills.”
Figure 1: Word cloud of the skills that 66 Wisconsin employers felt essential for workplace success
This begs the question: How do we provide college students with these competencies? The answer is not simply a matter of creating apprenticeships or career pathway initiatives, which are the programmatic solutions embraced by policymakers of all political stripes, from President Obama to Governor Walker. While these are important steps and knit together the often disjointed and dysfunctional education-work ecosystem, policymakers are overlooking the central issue at hand - how students are actually being taught and mentored.
Research demonstrates that requiring students to actively construct their own understanding of a topic is far more effective than their passively receiving information in a lecture-style lesson. This type of teaching, known as active learning, has been shown to increase students’ mastery of content as well as other 21st century competencies. This is why the National Research Council is making a full-court press to train the nation’s educators to become adept at using active learning methods in the classroom.
The second reason that the Governor and Legislature should reinvest in the systems supporting postsecondary teaching is that other states and countries are doing just that, and with years of disinvestment in public higher education, Wisconsin risks being overtaken in the global race to produce skilled workers.
On a recent trip to China, I observed an advanced robotics course in a department that had transformed itself into an active learning laboratory. While the lecture-centric, test-driven model of instruction remains dominant, China is investing heavily in their higher education system -$250 billion a year and counting – and is striving to transform its approach to teaching because policymakers realized that their didactic teaching methods were one of the reasons they weren’t producing creative scientists and industrial innovations on par with the Western world.
The problems facing China’s aspirations to become an educational and economic superpower shouldn’t be ignored, but it is clear that China has recognized that classroom teaching is a key linchpin in their strategy to produce a skilled workforce and generate an innovation-based economy. This raises a question: While many US (and Wisconsin) colleges and universities are currently the envy of the world, will this state of affairs hold true in 2020, 2030 or 2050? Will Wisconsin be producing students that companies around the world will want to recruit and hire– or will China, Germany, or Japan be leading the way?
While we shouldn't view such trends around the world solely through the lens of competition and fear, but also celebrate the creation of quality educational systems in developing and sometimes authoritarian societies, the spectre of a highly competitive global economy and labor market for today's students is hard to ignore. Consequently, these developments in higher education throughout East Asia should alarm Wisconsin employers, students, and policymakers because in many ways - funding and support for the instructional infrastructure - we are heading in the opposite direction than countries like China. Consider that state support for the UW System has declined by 1/3 since 2001, from $10,500 to $6,800 per student in 2016. Making matters worse, budget cuts have reduced career services and faculty development programs, and the continual disparagement of the craft of teaching in Wisconsin has led to a seriously demoralized workforce.
The public higher education system in the U.S. is an economic engine for the nation, and high-quality, experiential learning is the fuel that will help students successfully navigate the challenging global economy of the 21st century. We need to adopt a more systemic approach to addressing skills-related problems that includes supporting campus Centers for Teaching and Learning, career advising services, robust employer workplace training programs, and education-employer collaborations.
Of course, all of this sidesteps the elephant in the room - what is the purpose of higher education? - as this hand-wringing about jobs and skills implicitly places the vocational purpose at the center, marginalizing the role of education to develop young people's moral sensibilities, intellect, and civic engagement. Ironically, the 21st century skillset everyone is talking about that will get young Larry or Deanne a job are also those that advocates of the liberal arts tradition, from Jefferson to Dewey, have held up as of critical importance to our democracy and culture. Support teachers who can effectively teach these varied skills and you'll get a three-for-one: skilled workers, students with long-term career viability, and a society of well-educated critically thinking citizens.
Creating systems that support teaching and learning that cultivate these diverse competencies should unite Republicans and Democrats, teachers and business owners, and conservatives and liberals throughout the country. But until and unless policymakers reverse course and begin to invest in our skills infrastructure, we will be playing catch up to countries that understand the importance of teaching as the foundation for a skilled workforce.