The Re-Education of Alex Bruzan Episode 3: What’s The Use

Yeah, that’s a Phish reference. Most people’s knowledge of Phish is that it’s some weird hippy thing. Did you know there are still hippies around? I see them at Phish shows. We call them wooks now because by the end of the tour after following the band around for weeks you end up looking kind of like a wookie, or maybe they just start out that way. After Phish’s 13 show run at Madison Square Garden in 2017 a bunch of people that went to a majority of the shows talked about getting something called the wook flu, not sure if it was a real thing or just the effects of spending 2 weeks in New York city going to Phish shows night after night. That summer I didn’t go to any of the MSG shows, which were called the Baker’s Dozen, Baker’s Dozen because there were 13 of them, get it? They did 13 to one up Billy Joel who held the record for most shows played at MSG in a row. I like Phish because they do stupid stuff that another band probably wouldn’t bother with in order to engage their fans. So for the Baker’s Dozen, they contracted with donut shop in Philly to make something like 5,000 donuts that they handed out each night based on the theme for the night. On the 7th night the donut flavor was cinnamon and they encored with a cover of Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl. I didn’t get to any of those shows, but I did end up going to the rest of the summer tour that year. I think that ended up being 8 shows spread out in Dayton Ohio, Pittsburg, Chicago, and Denver.

I think it’s strange that more people don’t like Phish. It could be that I just started listening to them when I was 15 and went to my first show at Alpine Valley when I was 16 (that was an education in how different people do life). I could see how it was just a thing I started doing in high school and then never stopped. It was the 20th anniversary of that show a few weeks back. I think it’s strange that more people don’t like Phish, because I like them so much. I know we can all like different things, but this one thing I like is awesome. I’ll go on Reddit sometimes and look up one of two things, Milwaukee and Phish. On the Phish Subreddit, people post about now “getting it” after going to a show or listening to a particularly good version of a song. I think maybe getting it or specifically not getting it is key to understanding why people like Phish and some people don’t. I guess to get it, you would have to understand the point. It’s four guys that have been playing together since 1983, the same year I was born. They have never played an identical show. The 13 Baker’s Dozen shows had zero song repeats. They played something like 237 unique songs over the 13 nights. When you go to a show, the experience before and after is almost as fun as hearing them play. At most shows a chunk of the parking lot is designated for vendors selling shirts, drinks, food, and random Phish related crap. Inside the show, you listen in anticipation for a bust out, a song they haven’t played live in years, or a jam that will immediately make you want to listen to the show the next day – there is an app where they post every live show they play a few hours after the show ends.

Maybe anyone that doesn’t like Phish just doesn’t understand what the point of the band is. Phish exists to give the fans a good time. The point of liking Phish is that four talented musicians from Vermont, who take their music seriously but not themselves, come together to give you a unique experience through their music while having a good time. The point of Phish is to jam and have fun and if you know that going into it, it’s way more easier to enjoy the experience. In fact, I would suggest that Phish is only accessible if you understand what the point is, otherwise it just sounds like a bunch of random noise that only the most wookiest of wooks could like.

School – What’s the use?

What is the point of it? Over the years at Dottke, we have interviewed hundreds or even thousands of kids and we ask them versions of that same question. What’s the point? Most have no idea how to even respond to the inquiry, much less have an actual tangible answer. These students have typically been credit deficient or disengaged with school in general. They typically did not understand the point of school and I wonder how many kids all over the place are struggling with the same thing. What’s the point of this? That is a different question than do I like school or does school make me feel a certain way, which are good questions to be asking. No, this is bigger than that, it’s the macro question. What is actually the point of it?

What is the bare minimum outcome that we are looking for? What is the thing that, if we achieve it, we win? What has to be evident a few years out in order to show that locally provided education achieved its goal. It’s a little easier to quantify at the higher ed level. If you are in med school, you are preparing to be a doctor. The point would be to acquire the skills necessary to work on people. If you are in a welding program, the point would be to develop the skills necessary to use gas and flame to fuse two pieces of metal together. It would be a tough sell for someone in med school to be required to take a welding class, that wouldn’t make any sense because it is outside the scope of the purpose of the program.

One of the issues with defining the purpose of school is there are so many pathways that a kid can take after they finish up high school. Although the pathways are different the end result is actually supposed to be pretty similar. Eventually the kid becomes an adult and they have acquired the skills to be marketable. They have marketable skills. Marketable skills are the thing you go and do that makes money in the marketplace, our free-market economical system.

Oh, man. I read this thing recently that in areas of high concentrations of poverty many people choose or are forced to operate outside of the norms of the market economy. This would include doing part time versions of gig work, like a neighbor I have. He’s a nice enough guy and has recently started repairing cars on the side of the street in front of his apartment. I don’t know the specifics of why he is choosing to do that rather than work in a shop, but I have learned enough from living here that healthy people do whatever their best option is. That could currently be his best option, and, actually, based on the number of cars I see pulled apart on the side of the street business is pretty good. Actually, after reflecting for a minute that is exactly what I am talking about, marketable skills. I don’t know how much money that guy has, but I am sure it is less than what he would have if he took those marketable skills and was able to use a couple of other soft skills to parlay that into more of a stable career. That actually makes me think about another guy I met yesterday. He is about 50. He is currently not working. He wants to work. His exact quote was “even the temp agencies aren’t hiring”. The point of a temp agency is to provide work opportunities for those that struggle to find work. People that struggle to find work are the same people that do not have a clearly defined marketable skill. I have seen too many of my neighbors and too many of my former students struggle to find work. I wonder how school was framed for them. I wonder if anyone ever bothered to tell them what the point of it is.

Ok, back to pathways. We can break it down to just a couple and go from there. When we say pathway, we are really saying next steps after high school. What is the next thing you do to acquire a marketable skill or in other words what is the person going to do to provide current or future value in the marketplace. Here are the options:

A kid can go to a four year university.

A kid can go to a tech or trade school.

A kid can work or go into the military.

I think we have gotten to the point as a society where we no longer favor one option over the other. Enough “outliers” exist to prove that outliers don’t really exist and are the norm. Four year universities are not the end all be all of marketable skill preparation like the perception may have been in the past. 20 years ago in the suburb of Chicago I grew up in, it was four year or bust. For a lot of my friends the results was four year and then bust. There are a bunch of the skills taught in four year universities that probably don’t require all of that extra schooling. Graphic design would be one of them. Graphic design combines innate talent with understanding of design principals and the technical skills of knowing some well established computer programs. Web design is another skill that could be learned pretty quickly and requires natural ability as much as it requires technical skills.

Tech and trade schools are no longer a secondary option. In many ways, they are the best option and provide the clearest pathway to learning a marketable skill. If you want to work in the culinary arts, you got to the tech school and learn the culinary arts. It’s pretty simple. The cost is relatively cheap and the student’s time is valued highly in that they are not required to take a ton of courses outside of their intended discipline.

Working right out of school is a little tricky because I have seen that as an excuse to not acquire a skill. There is a difference between finding a job after high school and having a job lined up that will train you in whatever skill you need to have in order to work in that field. In fact, I have known a ton of young people that say they have work for after high school only to have that work fall through or, even worse, be unfulfilling. The unfulfilling work creates disenfranchisement between the individual and the idea of working which often confuses the 19 year old. What they missed was the point. The point was supposed to be you acquire a skill you can use to make enough money to live whatever version of life you want to live. Having a job wasn’t the goal, having a skill you can use to get and maintain a job is the goal.

I live in a neighborhood where the median household income is $24,000 a year. That is more or less the equivalent of $12 an hour at 40 hours a week for one person working in the household. That is almost impossible to live on. The average household size is around 4 and even if no taxes are paid on the $24,000 after rent the 4 are left to split up about $1,400 a month. Even if the 4 could get by on $400 a month worth of food and they could keep their transportation costs down to $200 a month that leaves about $200 for each of the 4 people living in the household or about $7 a day to spend as they wish. There are 30,000 people in the 53206 zipcode. Median means the person in the middle so that means half of the people make less than $24,000. 99.2% of residents of 53206 don’t look like me so that means just under 15,000 people in one zipcode alone have dark skin and live in debilitating poverty. What would happen if public education was reframed in a way that made it clear what its intentions were, to prepare young people for the acquisition of marketable skills. Then our jobs as educators would be to make that happen.

That’s what is missing here in the ghetto – marketable skills. I am not being facetious or over exaggerating. There is a significant deficit in marketable skills. In design work, you might want to consider designing to the margins. The margins are the extremes for who a system works and, in our case, doesn’t work for. The people in my neighborhood and the students I have worked with at what used to be a credit recovery school leave the public education system without the the ability to access a marketable skill. These people are particular to my social spheres but can be found all over the place. 53206 isn’t just one zipcode in one city, it represents all marginalized places and my former credit deficient students aren’t only found in one school, they are found everywhere.

If you got the info from episode 2, you know that access can’t be confusing. I wonder how much of the marketable skill deficit is due to confusion about the purpose of school. Second only to “I don’t know” the most common response to the question what is the point of school I have gotten is “to graduate?”. Public education is more likely to be framed as something to get through than it is the pathway to acquiring a marketable skill. I used to think the point was to provide a baseline level of knowledge that everyone needs to have. But the more I taught Algebra 2, the less I believed it because there are learning targets or standards in that course that not everyone needs. The time I spent teaching a kid that struggled to get through the course was time they could have been spending doing an internship or actually working on the skill they hoped to take out into the marketplace some day.

I think there is some new design work that can be done. The vision of the public school system could be reframed and then over communicated out. It could be redesigned to provide access for the thousands of kids that live in 53206 and are represented in lesser concentrations all over the country. The point of this episode isn’t to tell you specifically how I would do that or even what some recommendations would be. The point is to make an argument that a reframing or, at the bare minimum, a solidification of the purpose of our educational system would stop alienating those in the margins and provide clarity for why a kid should engage in what we are offering them. Here are some framing thoughts and questions that could help in reframing or clarifying.

The three tracks a student can be on are different. What would we highlight in all three? How do we make sure a kid chooses the track that is personally best for them? How do we make sure a young person, with the guidance of a trusted adult is making a decision that is in their long term best interest in terms of pathway?

What would be different in the different pathways? Are there courses or, even better, learning targets that we can definitively say are for one track and not the other?

How does speed in decision making play into this? When would a student’s intended pathway start forming? What type of life experiences would be helpful in expediting this process?

How would an educator take what they currently do and modify it to help fulfill the newly defined purpose of school?

What type of teaching method would be used in each of the three tracks. Does PBL make more sense in one verses the other? What trends in higher education would indicate we would need a shift in teaching practice in order to adequately prepare a kid for future success?

What does the end result look like? What signs would be valuable in measuring success while a student is in the system vs outside the system?

What constraints currently exist that would need to be accounted for?

How are the deeper learning competencies (content mastery, communication, collaboration, critical thinking/problem solving, academic mindset, and self directed learning) taught and is the teaching of these competencies framed similarly to the purpose of school – these are the skills that allow you to excel once you have a marketable skill and we are all better off the better we are in these areas within our given field.

Why would we bother doing all of this? Well, I think it goes back to my neighborhood. I have said before that the level of poverty that exists in 53206 isn’t necessarily the problem. Disparity in economic status is always going to exist. The problem is how concentrated the poverty is and that the disparity is so disproportionally skewed toward one race and, at least where I live, not the other. If ease of access is a pre-requisite to equity and there are inequities in the outcomes of our educational system as a whole then it could be concluded that the ease access to acquiring marketable skills isn’t the same for people that look like me and people that look like my neighbors because the outcomes are not the same. The longer I spend here, the more I believe that to be true because I meet people, great people, who do not have a marketable skill, do not know how obtain a marketable skill, or do not know how to use that marketable skill to go into the marketplace and earn a life sustaining living. Access that was easy for me is not as easy for them and school is the system we have for providing ease of access. Reframing our purpose at least minimizes the confusion around what the point of going to school is.