Is Our Education System Optimizing For The Wrong Outcomes?

KENNESAW, Ga. | Feb 13, 2024

I have come to the conclusion that we’re not optimizing for the right outcomes as we move students through today’s educational system. In any endeavor, we have goals and we have constraints we face when pursuing those goals. Given the constraints, how we choose to optimize our effort toward meeting our goals has a huge impact on the actions we take and the outcomes we achieve.

In this post, I’ll outline where I think we’re getting it wrong … causing us to churn out a lot of graduates who don’t necessarily have the skills they need to succeed in the real world. While my observations are based on my knowledge of the discipline of data science and my personal experience in the business world, I believe that the same concerns apply much more broadly.

Some Real-World Examples To Illustrate The Problem

A year ago, I was stuck in an airport due to a flight delay. There was a group of 6 - 7 students from a highly respected university that is universally considered a “top tier” institution. As a result, the grades and test scores required to gain admission mean that only the highest achievers will be accepted. I ended up chatting with the students for 15 or 20 minutes and they all seemed genuinely nice and bright.

After we moved on, I turned to my travel partner and commented that while they seemed nice and bright, there was only one that I would consider hiring. Most of the students were awkward, didn’t make much eye contact when talking, and didn’t exude any level of confidence in a social setting. I certainly couldn’t have put them in front of a client or an internal executive.

In another instance I was watching a high school sports award ceremony. Multiple team members went on stage for their awards and smiled, shook hands with the coach, and faced the audience for pictures. Then the student who received the “best grades” award walked up with his eyes down, did a limp and brief handshake with the coach, and then stared at the ground for the picture. Like the students in the airport, he was awkward and didn’t exude any level of social confidence even though his grades and, presumably, test scores were top notch.

These Weren’t Isolated Instances – They Are A Product Of Today’s System

The above examples didn’t happen by chance, and I’ve seen similar situations many times. The students in the examples are what we are optimizing for. With our massive focus on grades and test scores, we reward students who do what it takes to maximize their grades and test scores. In their eagerness to succeed, many students fail to focus on being well rounded and learning to interact with others. While we push students to optimize their grades, we simultaneously and unintentionally push many of them to stunt their growth in other areas like social skills and emotional intelligence. I often see teenagers sitting together but not talking. They are on their phones constantly and sometimes even messaging those right next to them via their phone instead of talking to them directly.

If we optimize for grades and test scores, we’ll graduate students who have great grades and test scores, but who don’t necessarily develop those other traits. Worse, many of those students may not even recognize that those traits are necessary and desirable once they hit the workforce. One of the most common topics raised by analytics and data science executives on my webcast is the fact even in a highly technical field like data science, things like soft skills, communication skills, and emotional intelligence are critical for success. They are also hard to find since so many people in our field are focused purely on the technical aspects of our work.

How Do We Fix It?

I doubt we can go back to the days when an in-person interview was part of a university admission process, but there are steps we can take. Some time ago, I talked about the idea of apprenticeships for technical fields. Those would take place outside of, but alongside, a student’s academic program. However, there are steps that schools and universities of all levels can take to help produce more well-rounded students. A few ideas:

  • Require team-based project courses starting even before high school so that students learn to work with others effectively in a team environment.
  • Require students to present and explain their work, both in writing and verbally, to their peers, teachers, and others in the community in a variety of settings.
  • Make joining clubs, playing sports, or other group social activities a requirement rather than an option.
  • Teach courses focused on 1) communicating effectively, 2) listening to, and understanding, the viewpoints of others from different fields and with different skills, and 3) handling and managing conflict.
  • Stress to students that while grades and test scores are important, they aren’t the only goals they should focus on in school or in life.

I like to think that progress is being made. I know that at our program at Kennesaw State University, we push experiential learning and have some innovative courses - both released and under development - that focus heavily on those soft skills. But, we still have a long way to go as does most of today's educational system.

Perhaps what’s needed most is for the customers of the education system - employers, parents, and students - to ask for change. As long as we allow educational success to be focused mostly on maximizing grades and test scores, we’ll continue to often achieve a local maximum of student preparedness for the real world rather than a more well-rounded global maximum. Students and their careers would be well served if we change the outcomes we optimize for.

Published by ~ Bill Franks

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