My wife, Cathy, is a teacher who comes from a family of educators. Her father taught history for 35 years, and her brother is a public school superintendent.
Recently, she shared with me how the establishment of public education paralleled the Industrial Revolution. As traditionally agrarian societies in America and Europe gave way to industrialization, people moved to cities to work in factories and quickly needed skills beyond farming.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, education, which was once the privilege of the wealthy, began to expand to other economic groups. The emphasis in what was taught shifted away from the classics—Latin, Greek, and ancient history—to the more practical subjects of reading, writing, math, and science.
In England, the Factory Act of 1833 required two hours a day of compulsory education for children working in factories. In 1852, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to require each town to operate a grammar school.
Widespread compulsory education did not catch on in the U.S. until the 1920s and was viewed as one way to integrate immigrants into American culture. Gradually, education came to be seen as a right.
Just as at the start of the Industrial Revolution, public education today is at a crossroads. An often-cited McKinsey & Co. report from 2017 predicted that robots would replace some 800 million workers worldwide by 2030. In advanced economies, the report said, up to one-third of workers may need to be retrained to find new jobs.
Today, more than half of the fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. are STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)-related and nearly 80 percent of future careers are expected to require some of these skills. Yet studies show that less than one-third of current U.S. 8th graders demonstrate proficiency in math and science. Only 16 percent of high-school students say they are interested in a STEM career.
We have already seen how difficult it is to find technicians to install and maintain the ever-advancing automated systems in today's manufacturing and distribution facilities. As these systems grow in number and complexity, keeping up with the rising demand will be extremely challenging.
Just as the Industrial Revolution spurred the spread of public education, the robotic revolution must spur a widespread rethinking of how and what students are taught. As students head back to their classrooms this month and next, we encourage schools to place greater emphasis on STEM subjects, problem solving, and critical thinking to better prepare them to meet the future.