As she travels across the United States, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos usually takes time in her public addresses to bash U.S. public schools, calling America’s traditional public education system a relic of the past and unsuitable for today’s world. Now, she’s gone overseas to do it.
DeVos went to Switzerland and gave a speech Thursday to the 3rd International Congress on Vocational and Professional Education and Training, where participants were focusing on adapting education and lifelong learning to the rapidly changing labor market around the world.
She was introduced by Johann Schneider-Ammann, head of Switzerland’s federal department of economic affairs, education and research and one of the seven members of the Federal Council, Switzerland’s executive body.
She proceeded to thank him and then delivered a speech in which she talked about the importance of lifelong learning and how young Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai had become a symbol of the importance of education. And she took a little time to bash some U.S. schools and compare the U.S. education system unfavorably to that of the Swiss.
There was her frequently repeated criticism that many American schools still operate like factories:
“In the United States, like in all of your countries, we are focused on expanding avenues to fulfilling careers and meaningful lives. We recognize that a dynamic and changing economy requires dynamic and changing approaches to education.
“Too many classrooms in America, however, still reflect a bygone era. And too many students are left woefully unprepared. The industrial revolution in the 19th century changed the landscape of agrarian economies, and of education. Students were trained to work the assembly line, and that was appropriate for a time. But we’ve experienced major changes in every facet of life since then.”
And then there was this:
“Think about it this way: Students seek out a credential — a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, an advanced degree — because they think it will send a signal to employers that they are employable. But too often what they learn while earning that credential isn’t what they need to do the work they are hired to do.
“The Swiss approach addresses that. Employers and educators work hand-in-hand to line up the skills required with those actually learned. It’s a bottom-up, self-defined solution. And it’s a solution we must better emulate in my country.”
Here are her remarks, as prepared for delivery and provided by the Education Department:
Thank you, Councillor Schneider-Ammann, for that kind introduction and for the warm welcome to your country and this International Congress.
Johann, when we met last summer in Washington, I was inspired by our conversation about the Swiss approach to career and technical education. And to my counterpart from Singapore, Ong Ye Kung: I look forward to hearing from you as well. I’m truly grateful to be with all of you today. And I’m excited to be in a place where I can practice my German once again . . . nur ein bischen.
This gathering provides an important opportunity to learn from each other. Here we can discuss our respective challenges. We can, at the same time, discuss ways to improve education for today’s and tomorrow’s careers, acknowledging the vital role it plays in our communities, our economies and our world.
Indeed, education and the economy are indivisible, especially given the interconnectedness of the world today.
In the United States, like in all of your countries, we are focused on expanding avenues to fulfilling careers and meaningful lives. We recognize that a dynamic and changing economy requires dynamic and changing approaches to education.
Too many classrooms in America, however, still reflect a bygone era. And too many students are left woefully unprepared. The industrial revolution in the 19th century changed the landscape of agrarian economies, and of education. Students were trained to work the assembly line, and that was appropriate for a time. But we’ve experienced major changes in every facet of life since then.
What was once unimaginable is now commonplace. Think of transportation: from horseback to horseless carriages to autonomous vehicles. Or, communication: from the printing press to fax machines to smartphones. Medicine, commerce and every other area of society has advanced and iterated, as well.
The percentage of those in abject poverty across the globe has declined in the last century and a half, and dramatically so over the last couple decades. Never have more people been more economically mobile.
And now more than ever, we need the unimaginable to become commonplace in education.
To do that, we must first acknowledge that every student is an individual. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for every student. And no individual student is “average.” Every student comes to learn with different experiences, different needs, different learning styles and different dreams. Their education then must be equally customized.
How we approach this must reflect the realities of today’s economy, with an eye toward tomorrow’s opportunities. We simply don’t know with a level of specificity what tomorrow’s economy will look like.
So students must be prepared to anticipate and adapt. They need to acquire and master broadly transferrable and versatile educational competencies like critical thinking. Collaboration. Communication. Creativity. Cultural intelligence.
These are essential — but often unacknowledged — skills for students to hone.
Students also need to be better prepared to pursue professions not yet imagined. Indeed, forecasting experts for Dell Computers recently estimated that “around 85 percent of the jobs that today’s learners will be doing in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.” A dynamic educational posture recognizes that learning should really be lifelong and that nimbleness and continued personal growth are attributes to be embraced.
While I’m here in Switzerland I will meet with students, educators and business leaders to learn more about education in this country. I look forward to seeing first-hand how Swiss students pursue their passions through many different technical and vocational courses and in apprenticeship programs.
The Swiss approach is one from which we can all learn a great deal. It is so interesting that more than two-thirds of current students pursue their education through apprenticeships.
Of course apprenticeships include those for welders and carpenters — which, in my country, is more common. But apprenticeships here include many options in every sector of the economy, including health care, finance and law. I was so intrigued to learn from Switzerland’s Ambassador to the U.S.. Martin Dahinden, that the CEO of UBS, Sergio Ermotti, started his career as an apprentice. And Lukas Gähwiler, Chairman of UBS, Switzerland also started out his career as an apprentice. That’s not commonplace in America, but perhaps it should be!
President Donald Trump has made apprenticeship expansion a priority. He established a national Task Force on Apprenticeships, chaired by Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta and co-chaired by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and myself. We were joined by leaders from business, labor and education. Our charge was to explore ways to empower Americans with options to earn and learn. And ways to encourage the private sector and higher education to advance this important opportunity for our nation’s economic future.
There are many avenues to earn what individual students want and what employers need: industry-recognized certificates, two-year degrees, stackable credits, credentials, licenses, advanced degrees, badges, four-year degrees, micro-degrees, apprenticeships and so on.
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. And importantly, no stigma should stand in the way of a student’s journey to success.
Proper credentials send important signals to employers. The question is whether those credentials match what employers need — and what employers think those signals mean.
Think about it this way: Students seek out a credential — a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, an advanced degree — because they think it will send a signal to employers that they are employable. But too often what they learn while earning that credential isn’t what they need to do the work they are hired to do.
The Swiss approach addresses that. Employers and educators work hand-in-hand to line up the skills required with those actually learned. It’s a bottom-up, self-defined solution. And it’s a solution we must better emulate in my country.
Additionally, the notion that education begins at age 5 and ends at age 22 must be retired. That posture suggests that education is merely transactional, with a finite beginning and end. But learning has no finish line.
Today’s students need something drastically different, something significantly better than what my own experience was. They need learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. Students need customized, self-paced, and challenging life-long learning journeys.
What they need is freedom!
Freedom to learn differently. Freedom to explore. Freedom to fail, to learn from falling and to get back up and try again. Students need freedom to find the best way to learn and grow … to find the exciting and engaging combination that unlocks individual potential.
Freedom and education expands opportunities for everyone, everywhere. I can’t help but think of Malala Yousafzai. Growing up impoverished in Pakistan, she innately knew that education was key to her future.
But there were those who stood in her way. The Taliban could not abide a young girl seeking to advance herself through education. They went to extreme lengths, by ordering her death — and they nearly succeeded. They tried to suppress her freedom and what she represented.
But Malala survived. This young woman inspired the world with her courage and determination in the face of evil. Today she fights not only for her own freedom to learn, but for everyone’s freedom. “Education is neither eastern nor western,” she says. “Education is education and it’s the right of every human being.”
Malala is right. Education — and the freedom to pursue it — is for everyone, everywhere. It’s not just an American “thing.” It’s not just for the Swiss. Such freedom is a human thing.
And an equal opportunity to pursue a quality education that fits one’s aptitudes and passions is what we must advocate for all students.
Education is indeed the great equalizer. It is the engine of strong economies, and it is the key to free and secure societies.
Students represent 100 percent of our future. Let’s give them 100 percent of our effort.
Thank you. I look forward to learning from all of you.