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SundayReview | Editorial

Q. & A. With Anthony P. Carnevale


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Anthony Carnevale, an economist who is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, has been one of the most outspoken advocates for changing the education system to produce more graduates with skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known as the STEM fields). He and his colleagues at the center produced an influential 2011 report showing that the United States needs to do more than produce an elite corps of STEM workers — it needs to raise those skills in the vast majority of students. More than a third of all STEM jobs by 2018 will be for those with less than a bachelor’s degree, the report found, raising the importance of high school engagement, community colleges and two-year associate degrees.

He spoke recently with David Firestone of The New York Times editorial board about how the country should address these needs.

How do you explain the mismatch between the high demand for skilled science and technical graduates and the low number of qualified applicants for those kinds of jobs?

One of the big reasons is that the curriculum itself is off-putting. For the most part, it’s a very difficult curriculum. It requires more hours of work. There are labs as well as classes. You’ll spend less time going to the football game because you’ll be in a lab somewhere. So the time-on-task in STEM is huge. And not so in other fields and disciplines. There’s less homework in English and business.


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But business and health care often pay more than STEM fields, and they’re more socially engaging. So young people, from an economic and social perspective, are making rational choices not to go into STEM.

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What can elementary and high schools do to make those kinds of courses more engaging and attractive to kids who are turned off?

Since 1983 we have emphasized abstract academic curriculums in teaching science and math, especially math. But we know, from studying brain function, that more applied and practical teaching works better and attracts people more. The whole movement toward high standards in science and math has become too much of a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good thing to raise standards in math and try to make everybody reach them. But not when you only have one pathway, which in the case of math and science is to move people through a hierarchy of abstraction. Every course every year gets more and more abstract. It has no real connection to the world.

People in general, and young people in particular, who feel isolated from the rest of the world, need that connection. Doing it the right way is also more expensive. If you’re really going to have applied curriculums with experiences attached to them, it’s more expensive. It includes internships, better labs, better teachers.

In case of both the students and teachers, we know these abstract methods leave them knowing a fair amount, but there’s not much evidence they understand what they know. This includes the teachers. If you ask them to apply what they know, give them a problem to solve, where there’s lots of choices about different methods and applications of science and math, they don’t know how to proceed. If you give them a mathematical operation to solve, they’ll do quite well. The SAT and ACT have known this for years. If I give you a quadratic equation, you’ll solve it. If I give you a problem to solve that requires you use a quadratic equation, you won’t.

From what you’ve seen of the new Common Core standards, do you think they move in the direction of more abstraction or more application?

In theory they do move more toward applied learning, but in practice I’m worried they won’t. I’m all for higher standards and I’m all for national standards, especially in math. But my problem is, given that we’re so deeply invested since 1983 in these abstract curriculums, that single-curriculum pathway may be enshrined in stone before we’re done.


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In theory, the Common Core says, we just want you to be able to do a certain set of things, we don’t care how you learn it. But when I look at the assessments, basically it looks like very academic kinds of learning goals to me. So I have a worry about it. I’m sort of what you might call a friendly dissenter on Common Core. I’m not opposed to it. I just think we’re missing an opportunity to build one more pathway. In a society that’s rich, where education is as important as it is, there needs to be more than one pathway.

Photo Anthony P. Carnevale Credit T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

One of those new pathways is what’s been called career and technical education (C.T.E.), where high school students learn more of the skills they’ll need for specific jobs, even working with mentors from industry. I assume you’d applaud the growing interest in that?

Yes. This isn’t the same as the vocational education of the ‘70s and ‘80s, most of which has been drummed out of the curriculum because it put all the females in home ec, and all the boys in the construction trades. What we’re talking about nowadays is an integration of career and tech education and high educational standards. But it really takes money and talent to make that happen. It requires a different kind of teacher, a different kind of curriculum, different equipment. C.T.E. is still the red-headed, illegitimate child at the family reunion in many ways. The path from high school to Harvard is still the one we all honor more, and that is a very academic pathway.

How do you prevent it from becoming a ghettoized path, the place where teachers shunt minority students into, and then ignore them?

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This isn’t a path away from college, this is simply another way to get there, and it will still make intense demands on the education system to get them there.

Inevitably, given class biases in the United States, upper-middle-class families will choose the pathway of high school to Harvard. But it’s not practical to send everybody to Harvard. It is practical to send everybody to college. That’s a worthy goal, and that should be the first goal. So C.T.E. can become a curriculum that can leverage more — we know that it can produce higher high school graduation rates for less advantaged kids, higher math scores, more going to college. So the question is, do you set out to make more people better off? Or do you set out essentially foisting your own ideals on other people, and say if it isn’t perfect we won’t do it?

It’s remarkable and I think hopeful that the president and [Education] Secretary Arne Duncan have shifted to this in the last year or so. The president was always there. He talked about certificates and two-year degrees in his State of the Union speeches. He believes there’s more to postsecondary education than the sort of classical model that just moves you from high school to a selective four-year liberal arts college.

For years, we’ve adopted that model, which is basically European. That is, you teach abstraction, you basically teach a lot of stuff that digs up old white guys from Greece and reburies them here. And then there’s the John Dewey view of the world, which is, the way you fulfill yourself in the world, especially if you’re an American, is by working on things, by doing things. So the whole notion of can-do education has been lost here for a long time. We essentially adopted the German system a century ago, and that’s become the elite system. I think that over the long term, that needs to be broken down.

As you have written, students who hold two-year college certificates earn substantially more than just high school graduates, and they often go on to four-year degrees. Should more high schools, like P-Tech in Brooklyn, include a 2-year college component at the end of the high school degree?


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The reform we seem to be headed for is for high school and postsecondary education to meld into each other. It’s very complicated for a simple reason: Who gets the money, how do you share the money and the power? But what’s happening all over the country is this kind of merging, whether it’s A.P. exams for elite students, going to college while you’re in high school, or whether it’s more colleges reaching back to high school students and working with public school systems.

I think the general trend is quite healthy, even though it’s taking years to happen. What this country did after 1983 [the “Nation At Risk” report] was remarkable, and we don’t give ourselves enough credit for basically the whole nation getting behind the movement to give everybody a decent academic education and stop with the home ec and voc-ed. Now we’re starting to have C.T.E. in addition to the academic path, and I think the real issue is, do we have a decent second act? Can we now create alternative pathways and meld these systems in ways that are much more creative?

Do all these trends leave you more optimistic that we’re not going to be stuck with millions of unfilled jobs and unemployed workers?

As my fellow economists would say, there never will be an unfilled job, because in the end when employers don’t have people for jobs, they make the people they need or get somebody from overseas. But still it’s clear we’re underproducing potential workers for STEM jobs. That is, we’ve increased demand by about 3 percent a year since 1983, but the increase in supply of people to fill those jobs has been about 1 percent.

Then you have to look at the retirement of the baby boom over the next 10 years. If the economy continues to recover, we’ll have 32 million job openings from baby boom retirement, and another 20 million from new jobs. That’s a huge opportunity, and now’s the time when the country needs to step up and meet it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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