Robots, Automation, and the Implications for American Public Schools in the 21st Century

In measuring the success of American public schools, a diverse array of indicators has been used. The high school graduation rate has long been one of the indicators of school success and effectiveness. The use of graduation rates as an indicator of school effectiveness continues to make sense today, but much different from previous generations, the high school diploma alone is insufficient for today’s graduates.

For generations in the U.S., earning a high school diploma was a ticket to a job, often a good job, where if a worker worked hard and did what was asked of him, he could be relatively sure that he would retain employment and earn a wage sufficient for taking care of himself and a family. That period in American history, however, has now passed.

In April 2019 Walmart announced that it would be adding thousands of robots to its stores across the U.S. Already in place in some stores and warehouses, these robots will be taking on tasks including scrubbing floors, scanning shelves, and even sorting boxes as they arrive at at stores. Obviously, these are jobs currently being performed by human workers. And while Walmart is describing the addition of the robots as a measure intended to protect human workers’ time, allowing them to spend more time interacting with customers, it is quite clear that an increase in the use of robots for these manual tasks means a decrease (and likely eventual elimination) in the number of human workers needed to perform such tasks.

Walmart, like other businesses around the world, is making the decision to transition away from paying human workers to perform tasks that robots can perform. Business are finding that robots can and do perform many manual tasks faster and more reliably than human workers. Robots do not require increasingly more competitive salaries and health insurance benefits. Additionally, robotic replacements are likely to reduce businesses significant challenge of attracting and retaining drug-free, reliable, and punctual employees in relatively low-skill, low-paying jobs.

The implications of increasing automation for American public schools cannot be overstated. The American student who coasted through school for the better part of the 20th Century and exited high school with a diploma but without basic skills in reading and mathematics, without a skill that makes him valuable to companies in the 21st Century economy, and without the knowledge and skill level necessary to do a job that a robot cannot do faster and better…that student today is in trouble.

In this economy, and with the high degree of competition in the labor force, there is literally no room for a worker with little or no skill; and as such, schools only set students up for failure and an incredibly difficult life when they graduate students without basic skills in reading and mathematics necessary to be a career-long learner, without the basic skills necessary to pursue postsecondary training of some sort, and without a skill and or credential that has value. In the 21st Century, a successful public education system is one whose graduates move into postsecondary education and training and successfully complete valuable credentials and degrees, and who move relatively seamlessly into the workforce well-equipped for entry level positions and well-equipped to continue learning and growing.

Our public education systems can only be deemed successful when most students exiting our systems have been equipped for success in the 21st Century.

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