In her speech Thursday to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a challenge to the room full of city and community leaders: Align your local classrooms with the rapidly changing economies around them.
“The pace of technological change and the increasing interconnectivity of the global economy demands individuals who are continually learning and adapting,” DeVos said in a session titled “Education and Workforce Development: Preparing the Workforce of the Future.” “Our children and their futures demand that we fundamentally reorient our approach to education. We need a paradigm shift … a rethink.”
The “rethink” DeVos mentioned is a reform that she and the Trump administration fully expect to be powered by hands-on, local efforts — not federal legislation.
“I’ve always believed solutions are best developed by those closest to the issue — by states, by your cities, by families,” DeVos said. “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.”
As much as mayors agree with the secretary’s push for local leadership, they say they can’t do it without some help from the federal government.
“We’re competing with Nashville and Minneapolis and South Bend and other regions around the U.S., but just as much, we’re competing with some city in China that we haven’t heard of a week ago, or cities in Argentina, or Africa or elsewhere, and those national governments are not sitting still,” said Christopher Cabaldon, the mayor of West Sacramento and chair of the Jobs, Education and Workforce Committee, in an interview with EdScoop.
“So, the sorts of very sophisticated workforce development programs in place in, say, Switzerland or Germany do require regional and national commitments,” Cabaldon added. “While America’s mayors do appreciate the focus on local flexibility and putting the decisions to the maximum extent possible at the local level, it does require a national framework and national investment in, for example, the existing workforce system in order to deliver.”
DeVos has consistently denounced federal-led efforts to reform education since her swearing-in in February. In a Sept. 28 speech at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, she told an audience full of student protesters that “One of the many pernicious effects of the growth of government is that its people worry less and less about each other, thinking their worries are now in the hands of so-called ‘experts’ in Washington.”
The emphasis on decentralized education has been a hallmark of DeVos’s guidance as Education secretary. With local officials taking the lead on education, she believes, local communities will be in a better position to reap the benefits.
“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,” DeVos said. “Coding is as common and necessary a skill today as riveting or stamping was a few decades back.”
Imploring mayors to get directly involved with their local education plan, DeVos asked “How many of you have been asked to, or have on your own, studied your state’s [Every Student Succeeds Act] 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.”
DeVos identified in her speech a few specific problems that she thought mayors could solve. She stressed the importance of students learning “broadly transferrable and versatile skills” like critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity and cultural intelligence.
She also noted the value of employer-school partnerships, listing alternative pathways into employment like “industry-recognized certificates, two-year degrees, stackable credits, credentials and licensures, advanced degrees, badges, four-year degrees, micro-degrees, apprenticeships…” that could benefit communities devoid of traditional graduates.
This story was updated to reflect quotes from an interview
with West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon on Jan. 31.