Academics vs. real-world results

Published by Lori Pickert on November 22, 2011 at 01:02 AM

If start-up activity is the true engine of job creation in America, one thing is clear: our current educational system is acting as the brakes. Simply put, from kindergarten through undergraduate and grad school, you learn very few skills or attitudes that would ever help you start a business. Skills like sales, networking, creativity and comfort with failure.


Moreover, very few start-ups get off the ground without a wide, vibrant network of advisers and mentors, potential customers and clients, quality vendors and valuable talent to employ. You don’t learn how to network crouched over a desk studying for multiple-choice exams. You learn it outside the classroom, talking to fellow human beings face-to-face.


After all, there is not one job market in America, but two. The formal market we always hear about — jobs that get filled through cold résumé submissions in reply to posted ads — accounts for only about 20 percent of jobs.

The other 80 percent get filled in the informal job market. Any employer knows how the informal job market works: you need a position filled, so you ask your friends, colleagues and current employees if they know anyone who would do a good job.

In this informal job market, the academic requirements listed in job ads tend to be highly negotiable, and far less important than real-world results and the enthusiasm of the personal referral.

Classroom skills may put you at an advantage in the formal market, but in the informal market, street-smart skills and real-world networking are infinitely more important.

Yet our children grow up amid an echo chamber of voices telling them to get good grades, do well on their SATs, and spend an average of $45,000 on tuition — after accounting for scholarships — while taking on $23,000 in debt to get a private four-year college education.


Parents could turn the system on its head if they weren’t so caught up in outmoded mentalities about education forged in the stable economy of the 1950s (but profoundly misguided in today’s chaotic, entrepreneurial economy).

Will Dropouts Save America?, New York Times

What say you? Is your child’s future work life a focus of how you are schooling or homeschooling today? How much does this guide your choices?



Comment by Roxy on November 22, 2011 at 05:23 AM

I've been thinking quite a bit about this lately . . . in fact, the past week I stopped short while doing dishes and contemplated all the money my family threw into undergrad & grad school and continuing education to keep my teaching certificate current. And really, in the "real" world, I wasn't sure how much of it was relevant. Maybe a moment here or there that helped me realized something about myself or an example of what I did not want to do . . . but really, all for a piece of paper that says I have a masters degree in education. So to take it further, I thought about how I acquired the skills I have that I really utilize and value in my professional and personal life . . . and most of them were established before I went to college. (Probably even before high school, as that was a total wash). And there I was valedictorian of high school and of my college graduating class. But I can't say that any of it really prepared me for what I do in real life. Parents, reality, experiences and relationships . . . not grades and ACT scores. (And certainly not "turning papers in before the bell rings & not returning to your locker" AAAAGH!) Thanks for the article . . . I've experienced a rich week in terms of discovery as we begin our homeschooling journey. This just added a lot of food for thought! :)

Comment by Amy on November 22, 2011 at 05:37 AM

Absolutely my kids' future is at heart with how we do things...but I think, and this is likely to meet a lot of consensus on this forum, that my wishes for their future work life might be very different than what mainstream culture values. And, while yes, I hope that someday I have awesome adult children who are loving, passionate and capable, the thing that fills my days right now is that I have awesome young children who are loving, passionate and capable. It's a balance between being present and creating our vision for a good life, day by day. If they learn now how to work- how to birth their ideas, get help, cooperate, take their time, enjoy what they are doing or find at least a little bit to like in hard stuff - those are the work ethics I see us using at home now, and to me those skills translate well into "work" as an adult.
I really hope that my kids leave us able to think outside the box and defend their interests.
So yes, I'm strongly influenced by my thoughts about their future work lives...inasmuch as I want those lives to be good, strong continuations of the life they are living today. This thinking has liberated my from a lot of self-imposed anxiety about our learning choices.

Comment by se7en on November 22, 2011 at 06:57 AM

Well done, This is such an interesting post... food for thought. As a not very main-stream homeschooler I haven't worried too much about the outcomes of our education - we're "in there" you know!!! As my oldest reached high school I had a few concerns, would he have test ability, would he be able to finish a task timeously without dashing off on a side track for two weeks and so on. Legitimate concerns for a real world job on day... but these things seem to be coming naturally as he grows up. And so, while we do the basics, I am far more concerned about him being involved in things he wouldn't have time for if he was in school and making connections and friends from a VAST pool of life - because that is a life-skill that can't be taught and I have found even for myself, that it is connections that I have made along the way that have brought me the most work(!), joy, whatever... i could go on and on but I think this is a blog post and going straight onto my list of posts to write!!!

Comment by amy on November 22, 2011 at 12:46 PM

No, it's not. I mainly want them to be happy and fulfilled *now* (this goes back to an earlier comment about how so much of childhood and school and life is about what comes next). Plus, there's reality. We have 3 kids. We're saving what we can, but it's doubtful there's a private college in anyone's future unless they can get scholarships on their own, should they choose to.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 22, 2011 at 01:49 PM

roxy, congratulations on homeschooling!

i think what i learned in school could fit into a smallish coin purse. some people think i am anti-school - i’m not. at all. i loved working in education. but for me personally, grade school through high school were a wash. i brought more to the experience than the experience brought to me. in college, i had two or three good teachers and a handful of moments where i had some sort of intellectual epiphany - a paltry number compared to the number of moments outside of school.

all my work experience i received at work.

so - what good is school? for many kids, school does introduce them to the world and learning. for kids like me, school needed to do a better job of stepping up its game, and it couldn’t .. and i don’t think it’s improved much (if at all) since then. i think i would have had a better experience in college if i hadn’t been working my way through; i would have had more time to dig into my subjects. but - i would have been teaching myself. and outside of school, that’s free. so i guess i have mixed feelings. ;^)

amy, i think you’re right about consensus here - at least among those who regularly comment. even though homeschoolers as a group are vastly different in their goals and execution, they seem to come together on one single point - wanting their children’s lives to be more balanced.

i am with you 100% on prioritizing the lives of children as the people they are *today* rather than as pre-adults. (ugh. pet peeve.)

that is a beautiful description of habits of mind - *those* are skills that will make them confident and competent adults, in and out of the workplace. one thing i like about project-based homeschooling is the emphasis on helping children develop their ability to make good choices. talk about something that transfers well to adulthood (not to mention teen years ;).

“This thinking has liberated my from a lot of self-imposed anxiety about our learning choices.” success tends to do that! ;^)

se7en, don’t forget to come back and link to your post when you write it! ;^)

hi amy. :)

again - as with the other amy above - this is such a pet peeve of mine, too. children’s lives should be treated as worthwhile NOW - they aren’t just pre-adults in training for their future jobs! we are on the same page there.

your comment about private college is interesting. do you think there are any magic keys to a great career/life anymore? i don’t think private school does the trick - too many people who don’t have jobs and are saddled with huge school debt.

this all hearkens back to the quote we were discussing the other day - that only 10% of income is attributable to education. that’s not much of a swing. it all comes back to the person - the successful person would have been just as successful if he went to a state school as harvard. (that recent article that said *applying* to an ivy league school was just as indicative of success as attending.)

Comment by amy on November 22, 2011 at 01:59 PM

Nope, I don't think private college makes a difference--just throwing it out there that it's not an option anyway, unless the kids (assuming they are so motivated to go to a certain college) can contribute thru scholarship. I don't want them saddled with debt. My husband and I both went to the state university. I wanted to take time off before college--I still don't think it was the right choice for me at that time. Anyway, it's the same sort of thing when people discuss now-schooling options. Private school is not an option because we've decided financially, it doesn't make sense for us. So it takes one whole choice out of the equation.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 22, 2011 at 02:18 PM

by now-schooling i assume you mean private school for elementary?

Comment by amy on November 22, 2011 at 02:27 PM


Comment by nancy on November 22, 2011 at 03:41 PM

Yes, our children's future careers are a factor in our choices. We are exposing them to real things and preparing them now to learn all they can so they can make decisions later about what they might want to pour their time into. Time is the key. They have it now, they don't have responsibilities and can devote time to learning and enjoying life. Our hope is that they will be able to find a passion and be able to make a living doing that.

Comment by Anne T. on November 22, 2011 at 03:54 PM

I feel like the whole country is involved in some mass delusion that involves clinging to a system that no longer exists. Yes, it would be great if we could still know that if you went through college and got a corporate job you'd end up with health insurance, job security, and a nice pension at the end. But that isn't the case. And my children won't be in the workforce for 15-20 years and who knows what will happen between now and then? So we will focus on helping our children develop good learning habits and self-sufficiency skills.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 22, 2011 at 04:12 PM

it's interesting, amy, because back when i owned a private school i used to get into discussions with people about which was more important — paying for private preschool or college. and i would argue preschool — because as the twig is bent, etc. i mean, if you don't get that fire going at the very beginning, i think it's hard to do on the back end. i think the start is crucial.

NOT to say, of course, that everyone should pay for private school! :)

nancy, have you seen those commercials for the new sci-fi movie where time is the currency? i love that. (i know nothing about the movie.) because it's TRUE. time is everything.

anne, there's a quote somewhere around here about how people make the mistake over and over of extrapolating forward from today (or even worse, yesterday). those guarantees weren't even true 25 years ago. when i started a business, friends and family said "but what about security?!" there was no such thing.

that focus — on building life-long thinking and learning habits — can weather whatever the future brings.

Comment by amy on November 22, 2011 at 04:49 PM

But Lori, suppose it's not a choice? Suppose it's not a choice between private school now and later? There are people choosing between gas and food, so to set up that particular dichotomy twists my brain a bit. I suppose if we'd decided upon just one kid, we might have a different conversation. But again--private school or a sibling?!

There are other reasons private school is not an option for us, but finances would be a big one. We cannot take on three tuitions. I would homeschool first. And I *do* think my children--none of whom have gone to preschool thus far--had/are having a fantastic start. As a non-working parent, I have a hard time justifying the cost of preschool in our area, especially given that I can't even find one that shares my philosophy of what I feel is appropriate in preschool. I'm sure your preschool was lovely and I'd have been happy to send my kids there (I'm not being sarcastic; I'd love to have a reggio-inspired preschool in our area) but preschool tuition staggers me. In a lot of cases, I didn't pay that much for college.

I feel we've wandered a bit off topic, though...

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 22, 2011 at 08:50 PM

it was a very academic, hypothetical discussion. :) i don't know many people who are going to be paying for a private university education for their children. it was really more about, if you had to choose one, which is more important.

private school or a sibling — talk about getting your priorities straight!

i didn't mean to cavalierly throw around pricey choices like they were all within reach of everyone. it was more of a "if you could have a superpower would you want to be bulletproof or be able to fly" kind of thing.

(maybe it's just me but i have that sort of conversation a lot.)

just to make sure i make this clear, i do NOT think that private preschool is necessary. AND i have visited many, many preschools — with staggering tuitions — where the curriculum didn't live up to 5% of what the brochure promised. it's a whole thing. the really fantastic programs are few and far between.

we have wandered a bit off topic, but i am glad you called me on my la-dee-dah "private prek or private uni" story so i could clarify. i need you to keep me on track. ;) but (re: being off topic), i do think *the economics of schooling* is a very interesting subject. with the right parents, it's fairly simple to offer something better — and vastly cheaper — at home (similar to meal preparation). and i think that works for college, too. ofttimes you could do a better job for vastly less money on your own — if it weren't for employers demanding that pesky piece of paper. (depending on your focus, of course — for neurosurgery, not so much.)

how's *that* for off topic? ;^)

Comment by T.L. Ryder on November 22, 2011 at 09:21 PM

Our education at home is about learning to think and learning to learn, so not very future career-oriented in any specific sense. There are a couple of exceptions-- we do lots of Math, in case they'd like to pursue a degree or career that requires advanced Math skills. And when one of the kids says something like "I'd like to be. . ." we tend to study it or try it out a little. For example my daughter thinks she might want to be a vet, so she volunteers at the no-kill cat shelter. My son thought he might like to be a programmer, so he started learning to program a bit.

Those are fun little side-trips from my main homeschool objective-- to raise children with first class thinking skills, a rich and varied background of knowledge, and a strong sense of personal agency.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 22, 2011 at 09:42 PM

i think learning to think and learning to learn covers the future as well as today! :)

Comment by Janet on November 22, 2011 at 10:19 PM

My child's future work life is not a factor at this point. At five, his career goals range from Jedi to policeman to astronaut. It's fun to explore with him, but there's more to life than work. Maybe too I'm not as concerned with what happens way down the road because I agree with you Lori, spending the time (money) for preK/K seems like a smarter investment.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 22, 2011 at 10:34 PM

jedi is the best answer ever to "and what do you want to be when you grow up, sonny?" ;^)

i really think the preK investment (in money, time, effort...) just ripples on down the line. i saw so many burned-out students who by age 8 already "hated to read" and "hated to learn". i just don't think you can repair that on the other end. it has to be baked in.

Comment by Anne T. on November 22, 2011 at 11:01 PM

I was sharing this discussion with my husband today. He is English and went through their school system in the 70s. He left the equivalent of high school at 15 and started a welding apprenticeship. By the time he was 19 he had a sought-after skill and no debt. He is mightily confused by our system, where we send people into a liberal arts college for an astronomical fee and spit them out on the other side without a clear skill set and in debt. He can't understand why anyone thinks they're preparing themselves for the job market that way.

Comment by Anne T. on November 22, 2011 at 11:05 PM

On the topic of burned out 8 year olds- I cannot imagine what it would take to kill the burning desire to learn that currently exists in my 4 year old. I hope we never find out.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 23, 2011 at 12:54 AM

i would love to talk about this more. because it's more than just not preparing students for jobs — it's about graduating students who aren't capable of choosing a reasonable path to a job. what does it mean that we have so many 20-somethings coming forward to say they can't get a job and they're swamped with debt? our system produces young adults who can't examine the job market, compare tuition prices among schools, and make a reasonable plan for adult life!

it never fails to amaze me how kids graduate with zero financial sense — another topic, i know, but definitely related. if you can't understand how loan interest works, you shouldn't be taking out a school loan. these kids don't grasp the value of a dollar and they're making commitments their adult selves will be paying for for a looong time.

re: your 4yo, *i know*. i literally never saw a 3- or 4-year-old child who wasn't on fire to learn. but i saw so many older kids who were already completely jaded by school. how do we get from A to B? dr. ken robinson says we have the creativity educated right out of us. i think it has to do with a system that asks for nothing from kids except butts in seats and mouths in neutral.

Comment by Anne T. on November 23, 2011 at 04:50 AM

My husband's niece is in her freshman year at USC. Her parents are paying for school, at least her undergraduate degree. She will likely graduate at 22ish having never had a job, not even a part-time one. She's planning to be an orthodontist, because they make a lot of money. However she seems to have no clear idea that she's likely to spend the first 10 years of her practice just gettig established, let alone paying off school debt. She seems to think that once she gets the necessary education, poof! she will be making $100,000 a year and life will be good.
Contrast this to my husband's nephew who is in his sophomore year at UCSD, studying music. He's got a scholarship, but still has to work through school teaching music to young students, as his parents can't contribute to his education. He also has a saxophone quartet that regulars plays paying gigs. He has very clear goals as well-he'd like to have his PhD by 28. He's aware of how much it's going to cost him and what his life might be like because of it ( hard to support a family, buy a house, etc) but he loves what he does and is willing to deal with the consequences. I love talking with him, he's so passionate.
So, both have lofty goals, both may be up to their eyeballs in debt in 10 years, but one is doing something he loves with a clear-eyed vision, one is aiming for something that "makes a bunch of money" without any clear understanding of what lies ahead.

I am all for a good liberal arts education, but I think it needs to happen in high school. If kiids are going to be there until 18, we should graduate them with a solid liberal arts foundation that includes real world experiences. And then a 1-3 year gap needs to be acceptable, where you can travel, take on apprenticeships, volunteer, develop as a human being, before deciding what you want to do and whether you want to take on the commitment of a long course of college study. No 18 year old who's done nothing but sit in a chair and keep quiet can possibly make those kind of decisions.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 23, 2011 at 01:41 PM

it is absolutely the open eyes that i think are crucial. your nephew is making a carefully weighed decision and living his chosen life. he is making deliberate choices.

i love this story about the two 20-somethings .. it's a nice illustration of the difference between a kid who knows himself and knows what he wants and a kid who is still operating from a reward-focused perspective. if we don’t help kids get to know themselves and explore their talents, how should they choose their path? they’re used to chasing achievement as defined by others; they don’t have a better strategy. they may not be aware of any other strategy.

“I am all for a good liberal arts education, but I think it needs to happen in high school.” YES. THIS. although as long as we’re demanding a good liberal arts education in high school, we may as well stretch back and grab middle school and elementary school as well.

i like your plan for ramping kids up to adulthood & work — real-world experiences in high school followed by a gap period of experimenting/working/traveling. there are so many different versions of this that could work. they spend so much time in school and hardly any of it is focused on them as individuals, helping them tap into their strengths, talents, interests, passions.

i watch my own kids actually doing things that other people aspire to do someday after they finish school and maybe work a “real” job for awhile, pay off a few bills. they write, draw, paint. they volunteer; they advocate. they have a curriculum that is focused on them; by the time they’re 18, not only will they be able to choose wisely, but they’ll already have explored some of the paths. all kids could have this opportunity. we just have to change our priorities - and our definition of what education is for.

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