Where Are We in American Education Right Now? A Look at Patterns the Last Three Decades

Thirty years ago this summer, I was finishing my first unpaid internship in Washington, D.C with Common Cause, a lobbying  group run at the time by Archibald Cox, John Gardner of Stanford, and, at times, Ralph Nader. The next year, the report,  A NATION AT RISK1, was issued as I began my internship in New York City at the Academy for Educational Development. During both summers, I waited on tables at night to be able to work for no pay at my valuable internships. This report was commissioned by the then President Ronald Reagan. I distinctly remember one of the most defining lines of that document:  The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.

In 1984, I graduated into one of the worst job markets since that the one we are experiencing today.  Little did I know then that almost thirty years later, I would look back on a career in education which has, in the last decade specifically, become devoted to reversing America’s underdeveloped, undereducated and underemployed.

Fast forward almost thirty years beyond the NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND legislation, the largesse of people like Bill and Melinda Gates and the global picture of students around the world compared with the students learning here in the United States. Students who were born in and around that time now make up some of the college graduates who are in their twenties during one of the most difficult recessions for young adults. According to this week’s New York Times2, youth advocacy groups designed to galvanize the efforts of graduates, in a more effective way than the Occupy Movement, are emerging. These graduates are required to be resourceful about creating their future work, facilitating networks where they can help each other, and developing a strong psychological personal outlook which will help them endure any economic turbulence.

When I wrote my first book, now in its fifth edition, MAJORING IN THE REST OF YOUR LIFE:  Career Secrets for College Students, I explored all of the workplace realities which few people bothered to share with undergraduates so that they could actually prepare for success once they earned their degree and landed their first job. The keys to the hidden job market are now as they were in the mid to late 1980s –a willingness from mentors and managers whom students have met on internships to pick up the phone, write a specific letter (or email)  or set up a meeting for a former intern who has demonstrated not just what they know, but what they know how to do; a college student who is willing to forego partying during the week to dig earnestly and wholly into their academics through facilitating a study group, reaching out to the professor or clarifying subject matter with a teaching assistant; a freshman who starts college by spending his summer truly learning what is ahead and preparing fully for a successful transition, including honestly evaluating his own strengths and weaknesses. Students with this kind of foresight can navigate the hidden job market as well as the transparent one.  They know how to tirelessly pursue opportunities and they know how to add real value once they are given the chance to show both their knowledge and their skills. These are the graduates who will not just get a job this season after they graduate. Indeed, they will be forging a promotion path no matter where their gifts and talents take them.

In the coming days, I will explore initiatives we’ve tried and the academic performance, graduation rates and graduation prospects compared with our past, as well as developing and developed nations around the world.

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“A Nation at Risk,” by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.” April 1983. http://reagan.procon.org/sourcefiles/a-nation-at-risk-reagan-april-1983.pdf

“Jobs Few, Grads Flock to Unpaid Internships,” by Steven Greenhouse. 6 May 2012. The New York Times. Accessed on 7 May 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/06/business/unpaid-internships-dont-always-deliver.html

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