How Should We Educate The Future Energy Workforce? Experiments Are Underway

By Catherine Horn, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies; Executive Director of the Institute for Educational Policy Research and Evaluation

The skills required for petrochemical jobs are rising, as today’s plant technicians are more likely to troubleshoot with a laptop computer than with a wrench. And because U.S. oil and gas employment has dropped precipitously since oil prices began to fall, only people with those top skills – the best grades and internships out of college, the most relevant community college training for technical jobs – are being considered. The education sector has sought to respond to these increased skill needs in many ways. For example, many community colleges – certainly in the Houston area – have poured resources into those training programs.

I recently had an opportunity to participate in a panel discussing the film, Most Likely to Succeed.” This award-winning documentary tells the story of one public charter high school’s effort to transform the learning experiences of its students to maximize the likelihood that they will be prepared to enter college and, eventually, an increasingly technology-driven workforce. Their approach is laudable – problem-based learning, Socratic teaching and prioritization of depth over breadth.

These strategies are not new; education activists like Ted Sizer argued for them 40 years ago with his Coalition of Essential Schools movement (now a network of more than 100 schools, including High Tech High, featured in the film). And they are grounded in a research base that finds them successful in lots of ways, including improved attendance and academic performance as well as increased college attendance rates. The energy industry has put a strong voice behind the “business case” of these kinds of education reforms, especially in states and cities where the economy depends heavily on this sector (See, for example, Oklahoma’s Business Case for Education Reform or the Greater Houston Partnership’s Upskill Houston initiative). They identify the workforce need for skills such as communication, teamwork, and logic alongside math, reading and science knowledge.

For good education reform ideas to move to scale, meaningful, mutually supportive and sustained relationships have to form among the corporate (including energy), education and community sectors and focus on the policies that shape classroom practice. As Richard Elmore describes inGetting to Scale with Good Educational Practice, there is value in incubating and rewarding concentrated pockets of innovation excellence in education. Such a strategy won’t be enough if the goal is to maximize opportunities for all students, however, because it ignores the influence of the context in which community is situated.

Instead, policies that take community needs into consideration have a better chance to succeed for two reasons. First, as Elmore notes, it “broadens notions of evidence allowing for good the dissemination of good teaching practices with ‘family resemblances’ in different settings.” Second and related, it empowers teachers and schools to engage in thoughtful and proactive reflection on best practice for teaching and learning for their students.

What does that mean in practice? Education is not a “one size fits all” enterprise, and community and sector needs can and should have a role in determining what type of education reforms are best. While care must always be taken to ensure that it does not simply mean unequal opportunity to learn, meaningfully infusing flexibility back into teaching opens up all sorts of good possibilities for learning.

There are interesting tests of this idea underway. Take, for example, the passage of Texas House Bill 5 in 2013 – a product of joint efforts and public calls among business and industry, parents,and the K-16 education sector for change to the current accountability expectations placed on students. The result was a piece of legislation that shifted the education landscape substantially by reducing the number of standardized tests needed for promotion and graduation and establishing a set of endorsements students could pursue in areas such as STEM, business and industry or public services. While still rigid and traditional in many ways, this legislation is an interesting one to watch in the ways it shapes the experiences of K-12 students in the state.

In sum, why the need to collectively focus on policy? If we want to prepare our students to be nimble in the face of an evolving energy industry, we need to build the foundation for such opportunity by collaboratively developing policy that maximizes opportunity for great learning and minimizes the unnecessary constraints we put on teachers and students toward that goal.

Catherine Horn is associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Houston’s College of Education and executive director of the Institute for Educational Policy Research and Evaluation. She focuses on the systemic influences of secondary and post-secondary assessment and related policies on students traditionally underserved by the education and social sectors.

UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.

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