Rock Climbing

By on September 7th, 2017

Robert Nelson

Lou Glazer

Rock Climbing

September 8, 2017

What made Michigan prosperous in the past won’t in the future. It’s time for Michigan to understand that, and begin to align itself with the new realities.

Largely because of technology, we see five big ongoing changes in the nature of work, particularly good-paying work:

  • Jobs are increasingly service-providing not goods-producing. Goods-producing is primarily work in farming, mining, manufacturing and construction.  Today it’s only 20 percent of American employment and continuously declining as a share of national employment.
  • Good-paying work is increasingly going to professionals and managers who work in offices, schools and hospitals. Yes there are good-paying jobs that do not require a four-year degree. And certainly there are good-paying jobs not done in offices, schools and hospitals. But good-paying work with good benefits is increasingly going to those with a four-year degrees or more and is increasingly concentrated in knowledge-based services.
  • Jobs and occupation today are less secure than yesterday and will be even less secure tomorrow than today. Smarter and smarter machines are accelerating the creative destruction of jobs, occupations and even industries. But which jobs, occupations and industries will be most affected and when is unpredictable.
  • Work is increasingly right brain––the skills that are the hardest to automate. Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind posits that new good-paying jobs increasingly will go to people who are creators, empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.
  • More and more jobs will be unstable, occasional, part-time, flex jobs––with far more of us working for ourselves, where we are responsible for our employment, salary and benefits.

Those who will do the best in a labor market characterized by accelerated creative destruction are those who have the agility and ability to constantly switch occupations. The notion of a career ladder––predictable and linear steps upward––in a world that is constantly changing is obsolete. Rather people will need to be like rock climbers––constantly adjusting to new opportunities and challenges, and then resourceful to take advantage of those opportunities. Add to that increasingly the ability to be your own employer, find good-paying work, purchasing your own benefits and managing your own finances.

These are the kind of skills that are developed best by earning a four-year degree, particularly in the liberal arts. That is what explains the reality that the higher one’s education attainment, the more one works and earns. The power of education attainment in raising one’s income has been growing for decades. The odds are great that the income gap by education attainment will continue to widen.

Unfortunately Michigan is a national laggard in education attainment, consistently ranking in the thirties among states in the proportion of adults with a four-year degree or more and even lower in K-12 student achievement.

Many believe that Michigan’s low student achievement is largely a result of what children bring with them to school, not poor schools. That family and neighborhoods trump schools. Families and neighborhoods, of course, matter. But the reality is, across the country, there are many early childhood programs, K-12 school districts (both traditional public and charter) and higher education institutions demonstrating that quality education can get high student outcomes, regardless of the students’ background.

One can make a strong case that Michigan has a human development system that tolerates high levels of student failure. Too many kids leave early childhood programming not ready for kindergarten; way too many students leave high school not ready for post-secondary education; far too many who enroll in post-secondary institutions fail to earn a degree or even a meaningful credential. If anything the performance of the adult training system is even worse with low completion rates and many who complete not finding good-paying work.

We need to both raise the bar so that all education institutions are accountable for meaningful success of their graduates and that those held most accountable are those in charge of the institution/enterprises. Policy incentives should drive–not discourage––all education providers to well serve children growing up in non-affluent households.

For us at Michigan Future, Inc. the case is clear: The top economic priority for Michigan is a complete redesign of education system from birth through college that prepares all Michigan children to be successful rock climbers. Our detailed policy recommendations are laid out in our new report “A Path to Good-paying Careers for all Michiganders: Improving student outcomes from education, birth to college” available at

Our recommendations are built on two core principles:

First, all children deserve the same education no matter whom their parents are. Without that we cannot live up to the core American value of equal opportunity for all. We are on the opposite track at the moment as both a country and a state.

The education provided for affluent kids is, by and large, designed and executed

differently than it is for non-affluent kids. One system delivers a broad college prep education, the other delivers an increasingly narrow education built around developing discipline and what is on the test, or narrowly preparing non-affluent children for a first job.

The second is that none of us have a clue what the jobs and occupations of the future will be. Today’s jobs are not a good indicator of what jobs will be when today’s K-12 students finish their careers in the 2050s or 2060s. We simply don’t know how smarter and smarter machines are going to change labor markets. So the purpose of pre K-12 education (maybe even pre K-16) is to build foundation skills that allow all Michigan children to have the agility and ability to constantly switch occupations––to be successful rock climbers.

The best definition we have found for this complex set of skills comes from the book Becoming Brilliant, by learning scientists Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, who label these skills the six Cs:

  • Collaboration, the ability to work and play well with others, which encompasses a wide range of soft skills necessary for success in the modern workplace;
  • Communication, the ability to effectively get your point across and back it up with evidence, both verbally and in writing, and the ability to listen and be empathetic;
  • Content, deep understanding and a broad base of knowledge in a range of subject areas, rather than simply surface knowledge of reading and math skills;
  • Critical Thinking, the ability to sift through mountains of information and get a sense of what’s valuable and not and to solve unanticipated and unpredictable problems;
  • Creativity, the ability to put information together in new ways;
  • Confidence, which encompasses capacities like grit, perseverance, and a willingness to take risks.

These are the skills students will need in order to complement rather than be replaced by machines, solve today’s problems and create new solutions to problems we can’t yet envision.

A lifelong education system designed around the 6Cs as foundation skills for all, no matter what career one chooses, requires a transformation in our approach to human capital development. Our biggest education challenge is not execution––although we need far better execution across the board––but design. An education designed to prepare all Michigan children for good-paying forty-year careers requires:

  • Standards changing from an almost exclusive focus on content to one that builds the 6Cs in all students
  • Assessments changing from one right answer standardized tests to measures predictive of college and career success. In addition to not being predictive, having standardized test scores as the only measure of student success has driven out of most schools serving non-affluent students the arts, music, a rich array of electives and free extracurriculars, all important elements in building the 6Cs.
  • Pedagogy changing from rote learning to problem solving/project based teaching and learning.
  • Accountability from closing low performing schools and firing teachers and principals to holding management of education institutions and systems at all levels accountable for high-bar standards of student success at the next level.
  • An end to blaming teachers, and moving to a system that value, develops and holds accountable all professionals who impact student outcomes. This includes teachers, but also principals, counselors, superintendents and chief academic officers.
  • Substantially increasing funding for non-affluent children from birth through college. The formula for ending what is increasingly becoming an education caste system––where for the first time in American history your parents’ education attainment is the best predictor of a child’s education attainment––is both far higher quality education providers and substantially more funding for children growing up in non-affluent households starting from birth through college.
  • Incentives to integrate neighborhoods and schools by race and class. We have known for more than a half century that the most powerful lever to improving outcomes of non-affluent students is attending school with lots of middle class students. Today, we are going in the wrong direction.
  • From letting the market decide who operates schools, to giving parents choice but only from operators who meet high quality standards and where supply and demand is balanced. We are long-time supporters of charter schools and school choice, but have been disappointed in the results of both. States where choice is working best to improve student outcomes combine increased parental choice with much higher quality bars to be able to operate schools.

If Michigan is going to be a place with a broad middle class, if employers are going to have the supply of skilled workers they need and if Michigan is going to be a place once again where kids regularly do better than their parents, it will happen because the state made a commitment to provide an education system for all from birth through higher education that builds rigorous broad skills that are the foundation of successful forty-year careers.

Michigan Future, Inc. is a non-partisan, non-profit organization. It’s goal is to be a catalyst for recreating a high prosperity Michigan — a place with a per capita income above the national average in both national expansions and contractions. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization.  Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.  You can learn more about Michigan Future at

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