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California’s education challenge: Preparing students for jobs in a rapidly-changing world

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The Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee, Modesto Bee, San Luis Obispo Tribune and Merced Sun-Star will focus on the policy challenges that most affect our community and our future.
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The Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee, Modesto Bee, San Luis Obispo Tribune and Merced Sun-Star will focus on the policy challenges that most affect our community and our future.

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

Stay in the know: Sign up for the California Influencers newsletter here - and tell us what you think.

The good news is that California public schools are preparing our children for well-paying and meaningful careers. The bad news is that students are too frequently being taught the necessary skills for 20th century jobs rather than those they’ll need to succeed in the information age. The Sacramento Bee’s California Influencers warn that economic and technological transformations require new approaches on getting young people ready for the new demands of a dramatically different workplace than their parents – or even their older brothers and sisters – entered.

“(As) educators, we must think deeply about how to prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist. After all, companies like Google and Facebook weren’t even around more than two decades ago, and now they employ large numbers of UC graduates,” said University of California President Janet Napolitano. “Our students will need to be prepared for the ever-evolving landscape of industries, technologies and professions.”

By 2000, the top three skills demanded by Fortune 500 companies were collaboration, interpersonal skills and communication, compared to reading, writing and arithmetic in 1970, said California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond.

“In an era of rapid knowledge expansion and technology changes, employers need critical thinkers and problem solvers who can work together to create new solutions and products, not just follow routines,” Darling-Hammond said.

Several Influencers specifically emphasized the need for enhanced technology-focused learning.

“We need to help prepare students to be competitive in the workforce and become leaders in the technology and computing industry,” said state Senator Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar), who cited studies that jobs in the technology sector will dramatically outplace job growth in other industries and provide significantly higher wages. “Let’s increase the amount of State Lottery Funds that must be made available to public schools, and commit these additional dollars to computer science education.”

Vernon Billy, CEO and executive director of the California School Boards Association, stressed other requirements that students will need to develop to complement their technology training.

“We should also emphasize career prep that nurtures important skills like oral and written communication, critical thinking, and collaboration that hold increased importance in an era where more employees have non-traditional work arrangements or change jobs every few years,” Billy said.

State Senator Connie Leyva (D-Chino) broadened the discussion further, emphasizing the need for enhanced career preparation for students with other types of professional goals.

“California must do a better job of providing opportunities for learning and training to students interested in pursuing non-traditional education and career paths. Not everyone wants or needs to go to college in order to fulfill their dreams or meet their personal needs,” said Leyva, who is also the Senate Education Committee chair. “Our state needs mechanics, doctors, social workers, nurses, custodians and engineers alike so California can continue to thrive.”

Several Influencers called for additional financial investment in the schools, including California Community Foundation program officer Rosie Arroyo and California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley.

“We need to support smart policies that make education, from early education to higher education more accessible and affordable for low-income children and youth,” said Arroyo, who chairs the Hispanas Organized for Political Equality advocacy organization. “This is beyond leveling the field. It is about giving the most disadvantaged youth a springboard to accelerate progress that is much overdue.”

Oakley underscored the burden of non-tuition costs for community college students.

“For many students whose parents aren’t wealthy enough to buy their way into so-called elite colleges, the deck has been stacked against them,” Oakley said. “Expanding need-based financial aid to community college students will provide the help they need to succeed in college and create a more balanced system of aid in California.”

Others talked about the need for more flexibility and innovation, including California Charter Schools Association President and CEO Myrna Castrejon.

“The disconnect between our public education system and the ability to empower knowledgeable workers seems wider than ever,” said Castrejon. “Our public education system is woefully suspicious of and resistant to innovation. We must change the way we fund, deliver and think about our kids’ education.”

Kim Belshe, the Executive Director of First 5 LA, offered a reminder of the importance of addressing these challenges long before traditional schooling begins.

“Start early,” said Belshe. “Today’s young children are tomorrow’s adults in the workforce.”

“We know children who start kindergarten behind – disproportionately low income, children of color and dual language learners – tend to stay behind,” she added, specifically alluding to expanded preschool access, developmental screening and home visits. “Let’s strengthen the workforce of tomorrow by supporting what young children need today to be successful.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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