Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke at the University of Baltimore’s fall commencement last year. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Did Education Secretary Betsy DeVos just trash America’s higher education system?

Here, among other things, is what DeVos said on Thursday about America’s higher education system — still widely seen as the world’s best despite enormous challenges — during an address to the U.S. Conference of Mayors at its winter meeting in Washington:

And you have the power to convene local efforts with business leaders, entrepreneurial educators, parents and students. You can help broaden horizons and encourage everyone to embrace multiple pathways to success after high school.

I’m reminded of a recent conversation I had with the Israeli ambassador to the United States. He posed a rather provocative question: “Why hasn’t America’s higher ed bubble burst?” He was baffled as to why America’s businesses haven’t simply stepped in to create their own education programs to equip individuals with the necessary skills, instead of relying on others to get it right for them. In many other parts of the world, employers and educators work hand-in-hand to line up the skills required with those actually taught.

When it comes to higher education, too many implicitly or explicitly suggest there is only one path to success. That must stop!

Her speech struck some familiar themes: public education hasn’t changed much since the 1800s and solutions to improve education cannot come from the federal government. She also urged businesses to become more involved in training Americans for jobs, saying the higher education system in America is not getting the job done.

That sentiment underpins an important debate about the purpose of higher education, highlighted when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in 2015 quietly tried to change the University of Wisconsin system’s century-old mission. He proposed removing words in the state code that command the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replace them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.” DeVos has been on the Walker side of the argument, arguing that higher education institutions are not preparing students to meet 21st century needs.

“There is a fundamental disconnect between education and the economy,” she said in her Thursday speech. “Far too many students are simply unprepared.”

It’s worth noting that such a level of unpreparedness apparently hasn’t stopped the economy from growing during the Trump administration. Perhaps the link between the economy and education is not as strong as many say, or if it is, perhaps America’s schools are better than given credit for being (which isn’t to say that many aren’t troubled).

She also said that “across states and industries, there are 6 million job openings, as the ‘blue collar’ jobs of yesterday become the ‘blue tech’ jobs of today.”

Actually, the suggestion that 6 million jobs are open because Americans are unqualified to do all of them is not true, according to this Washington Post story from 2017, which said there are a number of reasons for the openings, including that many employers don’t pay enough and that many of the jobs are low-skilled. It also said:

It’s telling that 5 of the 10 jobs the U.S. government projects will grow the fastest over the next decade pay less than $25,000 a year. The jobs have titles such as personal care aide, home health aide and food preparer. It’s a vicious cycle: Companies don’t pay enough. Then they complain workers aren’t dedicated and loyal.

Here are DeVos’s remarks as prepared for delivery and provided by the Education Department:

Thank you, [West Sacramento] Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, for that kind introduction. And thank you for your leadership on the Conference’s Jobs, Education and Workforce Committee. I’m honored to be here today with this group of city leaders and I know each of your communities is deeply interested in the work you do here and what we’ll discuss today.

Yours are perhaps the most hands-on jobs in public service. You serve people directly . . . when the snow needs plowing, the garbage needs collecting or the lights need fixing, you are the first line of contact.

The people you all serve are interested in solutions. And I must say, I’ve always believed solutions are best developed by those closest to the issue — by states, by your cities, by families.

In education, we’ve seen valiant efforts at reform from Republicans and Democrats, liberals, conservatives and everyone in between.

Education is not and should not be a partisan issue. Because everyone is aiming for the same result.

Everyone wants students to be prepared and to lead successful lives.

We can’t say that sort of public harmony exists in other policy arenas. Not everyone agrees about the outcome or goal of tax policy or energy policy or immigration policy.

Our unity of purpose here presents an opportunity.

Parents know that we need solutions for today’s education problems. And they recognize how little education has changed since they were students.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? Students lined up in rows. A teacher up front, framed by a blackboard (or perhaps a “smartboard” today). Sit down; don’t talk; eyes front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. And . . . repeat.

That’s what it was like for me, and I bet it was true for many — if not all — of you, too. In fact, it hasn’t changed much since the 1800s. It’s no wonder many employers are hard-pressed to find employees with 21st century skills when they’re being taught in a 19th century model.

Today, across states and industries, there are 6 million job openings, as the “blue collar” jobs of yesterday become the “blue tech” jobs of today. Coding is as common and necessary a skill today as riveting or stamping was a few decades back. But employers — many in your communities — report that they cannot find qualified people to fill those openings. Those jobs require specific skill sets and customized certification.

There is a fundamental disconnect between education and the economy. Far too many students are simply unprepared.

As mayors, you’re in a position of proximity to help fix that. You know your community and you know your constituents. You know what kinds of people are needed for the new plant or enterprise that is opening or expanding in your city. And you probably know a few folks who, with additional education, could thrive in some of those jobs.

We need more of a collaborative spirit. We need more opportunities to come together and find solutions. And let me be clear: those solutions won’t originate in Washington, D.C. For too long, people in D.C. have acted like they have all the answers — and they still try to.

But Washington should focus less on trying to tell cities and states what to do, and instead focus on convening people who are actually getting it done in cities and states. To, in turn, share what works broadly for others to emulate or improve upon.

To that end, I’m pleased to co-chair a task force on apprenticeships with Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta with the goal of bringing together institutions of higher education, schools and businesses to spark discussion — and ultimately action on local levels.

And you have the power to convene local efforts with business leaders, entrepreneurial educators, parents and students. You can help broaden horizons and encourage everyone to embrace multiple pathways to success after high school.

I’m reminded of a recent conversation I had with the Israeli ambassador to the United States. He posed a rather provocative question: “Why hasn’t America’s higher ed bubble burst?” He was baffled as to why America’s businesses haven’t simply stepped in to create their own education programs to equip individuals with the necessary skills, instead of relying on others to get it right for them. In many other parts of the world, employers and educators work hand-in-hand to line up the skills required with those actually taught.

When it comes to higher education, too many implicitly or explicitly suggest there is only one path to success. That must stop!

There are many avenues to gain what individual students want and what employers need: industry-recognized certificates, two-year degrees, stackable credits, credentials and licensures, advanced degrees, badges, four-year degrees, micro-degrees, apprenticeships. . . .

All of these are valid pursuits. Each should be embraced as such. If it’s the right fit for the student, then it’s the right education. No stigma should follow a student’s journey to success.

Learning should be lifelong, not ended arbitrarily at age 22. The reality is that most Americans will have a dozen or more jobs over the course of their lifetimes, often very different from one another. We all know that most graduates don’t go to work in the field in which they studied anyway.

Our approach must reflect the realities of today’s economy, with an eye toward tomorrow’s opportunities.

So, how do we do that?

From their youngest years, our children need something drastically different than the 19th century assembly-line approach. They need learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. They need a customized, self-paced and challenging education.

Think for a minute about this: What descriptors sound more like our current approach to education? Adaptable, nimble, dynamic. Or structure, conformity, compliance? I think we all know the unfortunate reality, and it’s leaving students unprepared.

Instead, each student must be prepared at every turn for what comes next. They must learn broadly transferable and versatile skills like critical thinking. Collaboration. Communication. Creativity. Cultural intelligence.

Students need to be prepared for professions not yet imagined. The pace of technological change and the increasing interconnectivity of the global economy demands individuals who are continually learning and adapting.

Our children and their futures demand that we fundamentally reorient our approach to education. We need a paradigm shift . . . a rethink.

“Rethink” means we question everything to ensure nothing limits a student from pursuing his or her passion, and achieving his or her potential.

This means focusing less on the school building or the school funding stream and more on each individual student.

You have an important role to play here.

You can seize the opportunity to truly transform education. Embrace the imperative to do something bold . . . to challenge the status quo . . . to break the mold.

Rethinking education will only happen when those closest to students are empowered to make the decisions that are best for them. And with the Every Student Succeeds Act, it is possible to make that happen. So do it!

You need to be involved in that process, directly. How many of you have been asked to, or have on your own, studied your state’s ESSA plan? If you haven’t, you should. And you should let your governor and state chief school officer know your thoughts. Share your local insights. Tell them what families in your community need.

Let’s all commit again today to helping ensure every child in America, in every community, from every walk of life, has equal access to a world-class education.

Thank for all you do, and I look forward to talking about how we can continue to work together.