Tom von Berg: Assess students, tailor educations in teaching kids

Jul. 16, 2013 @ 11:28 PM

Despite what leaders in education and government are saying, education reform in Tennessee is not likely to reach its goals of a highly educated, career-ready workforce.

Why? Because the essential first step is missing from the multiple education reform initiatives being promoted across our state. That first step is an objective, integrated assessment of each student’s unique makeup of learning skills, behavioral traits and career interests. An assessment that can be used to guide students’ education plans based on strength-based Aspirations and capabilities.

A number of Tennessee’s education leaders propose that rigor, STEM and Common Core will result in a better workforce rather than matching education programs and processes with an expanded range of achievable career Aspirations. They are focusing on education completion more than job readiness.

But not every student is capable of or interested in completing the STEM curriculum, based on their capabilities and Aspirations. Harvard University studies show 4-year post-secondary plans are not for everyone. There is far greater demand for skilled trade/technical workers with an associate’s degree than for most bachelor’s degrees.

Why not use assessments to guide more of our best and brightest toward two-year degrees and certifications for trade technical jobs that offer high pay, portability, and job satisfaction and business ownership opportunities.

Developers and builders don’t assess designs, contractors, materials or other factors before they assess the ground. They begin by taking core samples and site analyses before any work starts. Only after ground assessments are completed and analyzed will the best builders set expectations of the design, materials and workmanship. They are well aware that one building design cannot be applied to every piece of ground.

In Tennessee’s current education reform models, virtually every component is assessed except the “total student.” We suggest that each of us is a unique individual and that one size really doesn’t fit all.

Around the world it has been proven that matching an individual’s unique, composite profile (Cognitive, Behavior and Interests) to a specific job results in higher performance, satisfaction and retention. Irrespective of STEM achievement, high job performance requires a combined match of learning skills, behavioral traits and career interests. In too many cases, we are trying to teach rabbits to swim and fish to run.

We applaud initiatives that raise expectations and increase rigor, but to apply the same expectations and the same curriculum to every student is not likely to succeed. Around the 7th or 8th grades and continuing through grade 12, we should assess the “total student” and use individual results to develop aspirations, plan career goals and develop expectations in career-based educational activities.

Students who complete a total-person assessment provide themselves, parents, educators and stakeholders an objective profile on which to conceive realistic career Aspirations. With realistic Aspirations for each individual student, it is reasonable to forecast that Expectations are more likely to be met.

Combining such assessments with initiatives already in place will actually reduce costs in all post-secondary institutions by helping deliver more college-ready students, reducing the cost of changes in majors and increasing graduation or completion rates

There are two major barriers to implementing assessment contribution to a well-educated workforce. First, we must reach a consensus with a single vision that reduces disconnects between educational and workforce bureaucracies, students, parents, labor and employers. Second, assessments must be viewed as an essential education component; not as an expense, but an investment.

Tennessee has shown it is committed to a better-educated workforce. It has invested in a wide range of initiatives, institutions and agencies that have potential, but remain disconnected. So, how does Tennessee build a world-class, position-matched workforce? We must eliminate disconnects, achieve consensus and utilize an assessment of what we have to work with instead of making one size fit all. What we’re doing now simply won’t get the job done.

— Tom von Berg is chief operating officer at Integrated Management Resources, a Knoxville-based consulting firm focused on organizational and individual development. Email to