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Preparing 23,500 students for todays global economy
Al Nunes watches as his Ozobot that he coded follows the barcode tracks during Thursdays Manteca Rotary meeting program on the future of education presented by Manteca Unified School District Superintendent Jason Messer. - photo by HIME ROMERO/ The Bulletin

Jason Messer has a problem.

As superintendent of the Manteca Unified School District he is his charge of overseeing efforts to prepare 23,500 students for the global economy.

Here’s the issues Messer is dealing with:

How students are taught hasn’t fundamentally changed in 125 years. Classrooms are still about 90 percent lecture. The school calendar is basically the same. The school day is structured still in blocks of time, typically 45 minutes and then a break. There are roughly 30 students in a 960-square-foot classroom.

Public education was founded with the intent purpose of preparing a workforce for the 20th century industrial workforce.

1 in 10 students go to college, successfully obtain a degree, and end up working in a field that higher education prepared them for.

2 in 10 students go to college but 50 percent of them will get a degree in a discipline and end up not working in that field, being under employed, or else unemployed.

Surveys show 85 percent of college professors and presidents think that they are adequately preparing students for employable careers. Surveys also show only 15 percent of business owners believe colleges are doing an adequate job of training students to be a productive part of the workforce.

Manteca Unified performs slightly better than the national average with 20 percent of its students going on to four-year colleges with most graduating, 60 percent going to two-year colleges or vocational schools with less than 50 percent graduating, and 20 percent go into the military, are from wealthy families, enter the family business that doesn’t require additional traditional education, or make bad choices and end up in prison.

So how is Manteca Unified doing its job? Not as well as it should or can, Messer told Manteca Rotarians meeting at Ernie’s restaurant on Thursday.

Messer noted the current system is based heavily on teaching the three “R”s – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.

Schools do good jobs

of teaching students

not to be creative

While Messer said a basic grasp of those three disciplines are needed, just drilling and testing over and over again isn’t cutting it.

To prepare for the jobs the influx global economy needs requires mastering the four “C”s — critical thinking, cooperative or collaborative working, communication, and creative thinking.

To illustrate his point, he had Rotarians use a learning tool — a programmable miniature robot dubbed Ozobots that instantly reacts to lines, patterns, and color sequences on digital or physical surfaces. They were given a sheet with black lines that included several gaps with the goals of college and successfully entering the field that one studied for, college and not getting the job you sought afterwards, vocational school with one graduating and the other note and military and other options lumped together such as going into the family business, being independently wealthy, or prison. They were given color markers, scissors, tape, a coding guide and a sheet with various pre-coded program options.

The object was to bridge the gaps where the robot would stop without color coding to guide it.

Rotarians who followed all the rules as outlined by coding options more often than not didn’t reach any satisfying education and career objective. But those that took a creative approach and basically didn’t follow expectations or the rules, succeeded.

Messer cited studies that showed kindergarteners when presented with a problem were able to employ creative thinking and were able to solve problems 80 percent of the time. Creative thinking to solve problem dropped down to 10 percent when researchers tested 12th graders.

“We do a good job of teaching students not to be creative,” Messer said.

Messer cites numerous data to support his contention there needs to be a fundamental change in how students are taught.

After posing a question to Rotarians whether they would prefer to have their child or grandkids go to college to pursue an engineering degree or a theatrical degree, most opted for engineering.

Engineering grads go

un-hired despite big need

“Those graduates with theatrical arts degrees have a higher chance of being hired in their profession,” Messer said.

And it’s not because there are enough engineers to feed the ever expanding appetite of Silicon Valley firms and high tech start-ups.

Messer noted there was a demand last year to fill 40,000 coding jobs in California while four-year colleges and universities in the state graduated 4,000 students with engineering degrees.

“Just one-tenth — not even half — of them got jobs in the field,” Messer said, adding students aren’t being taught what the new economy needs.

He pointed to research  that teens have higher brain activity when they are asleep than when they listen to a teacher lecture. The goal, Messer said, is to get students actively engaged in learning by shedding the teaching strategy that puts 90 percent of class time into lecturing.

“The model for the past 125 years served the country well,” Messer said. “Teachers taught, students learned, and the country did exceptionally economically.”

The superintendent added, though, that the model is no longer effective in today’s world.

Changing the culture, he said, will require a ground up approach with the school community actively engaged in finding a better way to teach instead of edicts being sent down from the top.

It is why the Going Digital Imitative the district has undertaken heavily involves teachers in devising strategies for using the resources tablets open.

Holding up one of the 23,500 tablets the school district issued to students, Messer said, “This is just a tool.”

“It is much like a hammer,” Messer said. “The hammer is a tool to build things.”

The goal is to use the tablets as a tool to transform learning so the employability and success of district graduates can increase.

What Manteca Unified is doing, Messer said, is trying to find an answer to the problem of students not being equipped with the right concepts and understandings to succeed.

“You still need the basics,” Messer. “But this (smartphone) can provide math answers, history, and even translate words into another language. It can even teach you math concepts.”

But, as Messer noted, you can’t Google or Bing critical thinking or creativity.