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Don't Slave Your Life Away: Why America Should Embrace a 4-Day Work Week

Workers today are expected to be on call 24/7.

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Tyler Cowen has identified a “fundamental skills mismatch”  in the relationship between school and the workplace. American secondary education has drifted toward precollege for all, an objective memorialized in a commitment to standardized testing. Yes, we need mathematicians and good readers, but we need high school graduates skilled in information technology, high-end machining, and a range of other technical manufacturing skills that fit the new economy. This is not rocket science; it’s not test taking either.

President Obama has underscored the role of community colleges in providing high-end workplace skills. On its face, this seems a good idea; community colleges are affordable, are open to just about anyone, and are often hardwired into the demands of a local economy. But as

Thomas Bailey has written in the American Prospect, community institutions are filled with first-generation college students who often work full-time while attending school at night. Their preparation for college work is frequently subpar; it’s no surprise that graduation or certification rates after six years are well below 40 percent. Community colleges are also especially dependent on state funding and despite increased federal support are suffering as states slash budgets in this postrecession decade. Rethinking the high school curriculum may be smarter, more affordable, and more effective than a buck-pass to two-year colleges.

I do believe there’s a need for a better match between secondary education and the apparent needs of the workplace. But to be honest, I’m uncomfortable with arguments that talk about improving education— especially public education—entirely within the context of the economy and America’s workforce. The values and needs of corporations have thoroughly invaded the conversation about education, and you don’t have to scratch the surface of most reforms very hard before a narrow agenda shows up: math plus reading plus multiple-choice tests produces graduates perfectly suited to technology-enabled, rule-following piecework.

Despite the desires of corporate oligarchs, education can’t be only about popping out capable worker bees. Our very democracy depends on the maintenance of a citizenry capable of critical engagement with technology and change, society and democracy; an engagement with context and precedent—an understanding of history, society, finance, and power—sufficient to permit smart choices. We do not get the wise citizens we need if schools do nothing but train workers for our voracious corporate maw.

It’s clear that we went too far back in the 1960s, when experts determined that every student should experience some version of a college preparatory curriculum. When I attended Calumet High School a half century ago, the program offered three tracks: academic, vocational, commercial. “Academic” was pretty much what secondary education looks like today. “Commercial” trained secretaries and bookkeepers; my recollection is that the commercial track was mostly populated by girls. “Vocational” was as distinctly male, its trainees spending half days sequestered in noisy wood and machine shops in the basement of the school. But vocational training at Calumet High was dead serious; the program was hardwired into the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, and graduates could anticipate immediate employment in the (admittedly fading) multifaceted corporation that dominated northern Michigan’s copper mining industry back then.

Now, Calumet’s old three-track system was rife with real and potential inequity. Lip service was applied to the way eighth-graders were slotted according to test scores and individual aptitude and ambition, but there existed plenty of room for ethnic and sexual stereotyping, for making nonacademic tracks way stations for kids who just didn’t fit in. Once placed, nobody ever “got out” by making the transition from commercial or vocational into the (somewhat) exclusive and (slightly) refined reaches of the academic path. But despite obvious flaws, the system wasn’t entirely without value. While academic students were pointed toward college (and an inevitable extension of adolescence), our vocational and commercial peers were destined to grasp their diplomas and immediately head off to work.

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