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Wayne Lewis: As the workplace continues to change, education must evolve to prepare students


One of the best parts of being education commissioner is having the opportunity to travel across Kentucky, talking with and spending time with students, educators, parents and community stakeholders. There are many good things happening in schools and communities across the Commonwealth, and I am privileged to get to see and hear so much of it for myself.

One of my most recent trips was to Graves County, a real Western Kentucky gem. I met and talked with leaders, teachers and students, and got to help celebrate the retirement of the district’s outstanding outgoing superintendent, Kim Dublin. In my conversation with the whole group, we talked quite a bit about jobs. I asked the students how many of them had seen or heard of full-service gas station attendants. They looked at me like I had two heads, and rightly so. Full-service gas station attendants don’t exist anymore in most places in the U.S.

I told students the full-service gas station attendant was just one example of a job that existed not too long ago that we rarely, if ever, see today. Technology, automation, artificial intelligence and societal change are accelerating the rate at which jobs that require lower levels of skill and expertise are being eliminated. These shifts are happening not only in the retail sector, but in fields like advanced manufacturing and healthcare. Robots are not only cleaning floors, taking inventory at Walmart and filling orders at Amazon fulfillment centers, they are used in surgery.

It is imperative that we ensure our students have the knowledge and skills needed to be competitive in this changing economy. For example, 3-D printing is beginning to revolutionize manufacturing by shortening production times and shrinking supply chains, so the skills people need to run those machines are drastically different than what people used to need to work on a factory assembly line. Understanding how technology is affecting us in the present and how our schools have to adapt quickly to those changes is not easy, but we have to do it. Otherwise, many of our children will be wholly underprepared for the 21st century workforce.

I’ve spent most of my adult life in education or in government working with and supporting schools and postsecondary institutions. I’ve been a teacher, a college professor, a state government administrator, and for the past 15 months, Kentucky’s chief state schools officer. I understand that things in education can sometimes be slow to change. It takes time to see a need in the workforce, devise a strategy to meet the need, train your educators, change classroom practices and then wait a few more years to see how those strategies translate into the workplace.

But the amount of time it takes to produce the next industry-changing technology is growing shorter, so the amount of time it takes schools to respond also must be quicker. Otherwise, our children and our Commonwealth will suffer.

There is no silver bullet for better aligning schools with current workforce demand or for accelerating the rate of change in our schools. It involves schools working collaboratively with business and industry stakeholders on a continual basis to see where the skills gaps are emerging and then responding quickly – together – to meet those needs. It involves us at the Kentucky Department of Education working to remove barriers, encouraging innovation, facilitating relationship building, and supporting districts and schools in their innovation and partnership efforts. It isn’t just one program or one skill area we need to work on. It’s a shift in mindset for all of us.

Kentucky’s students, parents and employers expect schools to adapt. We can and we will. Kentucky’s schools are staffed by leaders and teachers who are not only loving and compassionate, but they are also innovative and skilled professionals. I truly believe that in creating schools that ensure students have the knowledge and skills today’s employers expect and demand of workers, Kentucky schools will lead the way.

Wayne Lewis is Commissioner of Education for Kentucky.

This piece originally appeared at Kentucky Teacher


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