Curriculum for a New American Century

What would a national core curriculum to prepare students for work in the Age of Service look like?

There’s a lot of debate in educational circles these days about what our children should be reading. Sparked by the Common Core State Standards — new national guidelines for what public school students should learn from kindergarten through twelfth grade — the debate centers on the question of whether students should study literature or “informational texts.”

Supporters of the Common Core have argued strenuously that the purpose of education is to prepare students for their future careers. Reading, therefore, should be taught in a way that will best serve students’ future employers. According to these folks, in the twenty-first-century economy, an understanding of Shakespeare or any other sophisticated literature will be of little use to most students in their careers. As Common Core designer and advocate David Coleman put it: “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

Coleman and the other architects of the Common Core should be commended for their commitment to promoting curriculum “designed to be robust and relevant to the real world.” Unfortunately, however, their understanding of the global economy seems to be trapped in a late-twentieth-century “knowledge economy” framework.

As the New York Times reported in January, the vast majority of job growth in today’s economy is in the service sector, especially low-wage fields like retail and food preparation. An August 2012 report by the National Employment Law Project highlighted this trend, noting that over the past three years, “employment gains have been concentrated in lower-wage occupations, which grew 2.7 times as fast as mid-wage and higher-wage occupations.” Within these areas of growth, the two fields experiencing the biggest employment boom are retail sales (nearly 350,000 jobs created since 2010) and food preparation (more than 300,000 jobs created).

If the late twentieth century was the information age, the early twenty-first is the age of service. Combine the advances in workplace automation and productivity in recent decades with the collapse of employment in the finance, real estate, and information sectors, and one can only conclude that the service industry’s dominance will continue to accelerate. In today’s economy, service jobs appear to be some of the only ones where a human touch is still needed. For these jobs, the ability to write a market analysis is no more practical than the ability to write a sonnet. What would a national core curriculum to prepare students for work in the Age of Service look like?

While basic literacy is a requisite for some service occupations, the Common Core designers are correct in determining that literary analysis and — and indeed, critical thinking — have been rendered obsolete by the rise of the service economy. This being the case, the Common Core Standards do not go nearly far enough in their attempts to create a curriculum meant to prepare students for the world of work.

No area of study offers as many exciting service-oriented possibilities as the sciences. Our public schools continue to push students through a twentieth-century curriculum, requiring students to study biology, chemistry, and sometimes even physics. A practical science education for the twenty-first century economy would be structured around three core fields:

  1. Cleaning / More than any other field, cleaning remains relevant throughout the service industry. From food service to home care, employers seek out job applicants with an understanding of — and aptitude for — cleaning. Beyond the practical, cleaning offers students the rare opportunity to go beyond skills-based education (How do I clean things?) towards more conceptual, analytical questions (What does “clean” mean?). Prior to graduation, all students should be required to achieve proficiency in the science of cleanliness. Additionally, high school science departments should offer specialized tracks for students hoping to pursue careers in cleaning. Such tracks might include Cleaning and Hygiene in Food Service; Methods of Laundry; and Comparative Cleanliness.
  2. Food Sciences / Food service is one of the driving forces behind our service economy, yet the study of food science has traditionally been left to home economics or other elective classes. What’s more, while food preparation is the largest area of growth in this sector, waiting tables is a rapidly growing job-market niche. Thus, in addition to adding a food preparation track to the secondary school science curriculum, table service should be added as a subconcentration within this track.
  3. Workplace Physics / Another exciting growth area in the service economy is stock and material moving. Since 2008, more than 200,000 jobs have been created in this sector, which requires of its workers a deep understanding of how to properly move and deposit materials. We propose a workplace physics track, focused on educating students in the science of lifting and moving materials ranging from heavy boxes to containers of toxic chemicals. Such a track would not only be extremely practical, but would also provide many opportunities for interdisciplinary links with the physical education curriculum.

Service-Oriented Core Mathematics

In many states, students are currently required to pursue mathematical study far past arithmetic, achieving proficiency in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry before they receive an advanced diploma. High-performing students are even pushed to study calculus! Such math skills are superfluous, even decadent, in a service-driven job market.

Arithmetic, on the other hand, is of great value in the calculation of sums and differences. How many times have you waited patiently at a cash register while an overeducated worker struggled to calculate the correct change? While it’s true that most registers now perform mathematics for today’s cashiers, these machines tend toward breakdown. It hardly seems fair that when a register isn’t functioning, customers need move at the pace of the arithmetically challenged worker.

For mathematics education to be truly practical in the age of service, it must focus primarily on addition and subtraction. Within these subfields, core skills for mastery should include rapid addition with decimals and subtraction from 100. Students with an aptitude for math should be pushed towards a multiplication track, wherein they could explore the calculation of sales tax.

The End of History

No discipline better exemplifies the waste of our traditional K-12 curriculum than history. There’s no practical application of historical knowledge in the service economy. What’s more, historical knowledge, combined with the analytical skills traditionally encouraged in history classes, may lead students to become discontented with their roles as service workers. As such, history education is not just irrelevant but detrimental to the goals of the Common Core. As a discipline offering no practical real-world application, history should be eliminated.

The end of history creates the opportunity to add more forward-looking study to our core curriculum. In particular, I propose replacing history with a track called futures in service that students would begin in the sixth grade and pursue through graduation. This track would prepare students to navigate the complex dynamics of the service workplace, using classroom time to provide them with real-world job skills through skills training, role-plays, and icebreakers.

The futures track would not limit students to classroom work. Instead, through this track high school students could become service interns, performing service jobs at their own schools. Having students fill their schools’ janitorial and food-service needs would provide them with valuable job training. It would also save school districts millions of dollars in wages and benefits.

English for the Twenty-First Century

On the surface, the study of English beyond functional literacy might seem as wasteful as the study of history — and in many ways it is. By demanding that English classes focus intensely on “informational texts” instead of complex literature, the Common Core’s architects have taken a positive step, attempting to transform English into a relevant discipline.

Sadly, the Common Core’s focus on what literacy experts call “reading to learn” — pulling information out of expository texts — has America’s high-school students focusing on skills that students should master between the ages of eight and thirteen. In English, the Common Core thus represents a lowering of our national standards, particularly for high school students.

Instead of lowering the standards, we propose making high school English relevant to the service economy. Once students can “read to learn” — by eighth grade, at the latest — they are functionally literate as service workers. Further reading study is thus superfluous. We propose that high school English abandon reading and focus on the study of rhetoric. The rhetoric curriculum should be composed of two tracks:

  1. Servile Rhetoric / Low-performing English students would receive intensive training in servile rhetoric. Through role-plays and exercises, they would learn how to speak appropriately to consumers and employers. Particular attention would be paid to the areas of apology and genuflection.
  2. Supervisory Rhetoric / No skill is more valuable for supervisors than communication. High-performing English students would thus be trained for positions in management through an intensive supervisory rhetoric track. These future managers would study the arts of motivational speech, subtle coercion, obfuscation, jargon, and dispassionate abuse.

Abandoning the Ivory Tower

At heart, the Common Core Standards are doomed because their goals are contradictory: to provide students “the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” In a service economy, students do not need college for career success. In fact, college education will do nothing more than saddle service workers with the twin burdens of crushing debt and unfulfillable intellectual curiosity.

In the age of service, public education should prepare students to be happy and productive in the real world. College education should thus be eliminated as a common expectation for public-school students. After high school, students should transition directly from their service internships into service careers. Sparing them four years of needless intellectual development would be both a favor and a mercy.