Innovating K-12 Education for the New Economy

If there's one subject nearly every American has considered of late, it's our nation's future. From rising unemployment rates to growing concerns for future generations, we all fear the consequences of a weak economy.

As an experienced educator and the current Head of Beaver Country Day School, I, too, harbor these concerns. However, I am hopeful. I believe that a major part of the remedy to our country's economic fears is at our fingertips, and it begins with education. Educators must provide our youth with the necessary skills and experiences to be successful in the new economy and retain our nation's competitive edge. We must change our approach to K-12 education.

Let's begin with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Education. According to U.S. News, "If the United States is to maintain its economic power, then we will need a STEM-educated workforce that can meet the demands of business in an increasingly complex and technology-driven economy." Sadly, while 28 percent of high school freshmen declare an interest in STEM, 57 percent of them have lost interest by graduation.

As educators, it is our responsibility to keep students engaged in order to transform them into successful 21st century leaders. While STEM is important, we must take it a step further by shifting to STEAM -- incorporating art and design into the curriculum. Education should provide students with opportunities to experience topics like science and technology, rather than simply learn about them. Educators must also teach our youth essential skills like critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. Incorporating these skills into the everyday curriculum will enable our youth to thrive in our nation's new economy.

Our current approach to K-12 education is not effectively teaching these skills. According to the American Management Association 2010 Critical Skills Survey, only 9.1 percent of business leaders believe that K-12 schools are doing an "above average job" of preparing students for success with these traits, compared with 41.6 percent at the four-year college level. The economic realities of 2013 require savvy, versatile workers. Employers need well-rounded individuals with the skills necessary to compete in our highly competitive marketplace.

Based on my 25 years of experience bridging education and the real world, here's how we can begin to innovate K-12 education to cultivate 21st century leaders:

First, learn from nontraditional leaders in education. Look to places like Khan Academy's flipped classroom, which allows students to focus on creative problem solving, or High Tech High, which prepares students for STEM-focused careers. Too many educators are content to stand by AP testing, standardized learning and outdated curricula. Instead, we should adapt and innovate for the changing economy.

Second, look outside the educational world for inspiration and bring a little bit of the outside in. Career-inspiring guest speakers and professional influences shouldn't be limited to the university level. Empower K-12 students to see where emerging careers can take them. Some of my favorite thought leaders include career guide author Dan Pink, business consultant Jim Collins, and motivation and psychology expert Carol Dweck. Applying lessons from real-world experts in the classroom prepares students for the challenges they will inevitably face in the professional world, making them not only better equipped to handle challenging situations, but also more attractive to future employers.

Next, schools and individual teachers should adapt the learning environment to focus on delivering experiences and skills that students need. When we decided to integrate design thinking into all of Beaver's classrooms, we partnered with IDEO, the firm that invented the process, to create spaces that are conducive to collaboratively approaching complex, real-world problems. When we designed our new science classrooms to facilitate experiments rather than labs, we went to the Broad Institute and the MIT Media Lab for inspiration.

This ties into my final point: contextualize education within the new economic realities so education is more useful. Present students with complex problems that require creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking to arrive at a solution -- of which there should be more than one. Is there ever only one answer to the problems that businesses and individuals face? Encourage students to "make excellent mistakes" (a Dan Pink notion), antithetical to the "get it right the first time" mindset of SAT/AP driven education.

A major pivot in K-12 education is needed, and we must seize the opportunity now. Moving the needle on job creation and fulfillment does not begin with trade schools and universities; it begins with preparing and motivating students from an early age, and equipping them with the experiences and skills that will drive our economy forward.

I'd love to hear your comments. How can K-12 educators prepare students for these emerging opportunities? Can you think of certain K-12 educators who are innovating their educational approach? How can we keep students motivated to pursue an education and ensure that they obtain the skills necessary to succeed in our new economy?