Courtesy: Anaheim Union High School District
A student in the Anaheim's Innovative Mentoring Experience (AIME) program. The district partners with more than 80 businesses across 20 cities in California and New York to prepare students for college and careers.

Nearly sixty years ago, speaking about the implications of the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

With all the attention on reopening schools during a national pandemic, school leaders and policymakers need to also critically focus on how we will prepare students for the world after the pandemic.

Our young people, called Generation Z-ers, already were faced with high college debt, mostly short term “gig” jobs with few or no benefits like health insurance, and few opportunities for mentorships or internships with corporations or non-profits that would give them better job skills.

For Generation Z, Covid-19 has laid bare an already simmering gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” favoring those who can social distance, those who had SAT and AP tutoring, those who had access to technology, those with access to health care and those whose parents have jobs and could work from home.

More than ever, we need to teach students how to “upskill,” as Ramona Schindelheim of the nonprofit Working Nation speaks of often when talking about the future of work. The folks at Working Nation have warned of the growing gap between K-16 drivers and the needs of the workforce, even prior to the pandemic.

Traditional academic drivers include focus on standardized tests linked to punitive accountability for teachers and narrowing of the curriculum to what’s tested. It is no secret that many business leaders lament the lack of “soft” and “hard” skills among college graduates. These include emotional and relational intelligence as well as technical, job-specific expertise and knowledge.

Upskilling is a lifelong disposition to improve oneself in both soft and hard skills. In order to survive the post-pandemic world, upskilling is necessary for everyone, not only for individuals, but also for institutions, businesses, nonprofits, universities and schools. Millions of teachers are upskilling their technical expertise to deliver engaging, relevant and rigorous instruction through distance learning. Some are thriving. Many are not, and this is a serious challenge for public education.

Some teachers and many administrators and educational leaders believe that “hybrid” and distance learning is temporary and that after this crisis passes, we can go back to the good old status quo, including traditional “college ready” academic drivers. Going back to the status quo will only exacerbate the equity gaps in access to soft and hard skills, and also deepen the crisis in building cohesion among K-12 schools, community colleges, four-year institutions and the workforce.

As Joe Fuller, professor at Harvard Business School, points out, hundreds of thousands of businesses have pivoted to a remote world, and we are witnessing a rapid and vicious Darwinian survival of the fittest. The pandemic has forced businesses to evolve immediately or die.

Fuller and many others would argue that there is no going back and that the world of work will forever be changed. We in education, therefore, had better prepare young people for a hybrid economy, one that values both soft and hard skills.

We need to stop pining for the past and wake up to the fact that this is a teachable moment, an opportunity to align what we teach them so that students learn how to upskill throughout their lives, including how to navigate and thrive in a virtual hybrid world.

There are three things, therefore, that districts should focus on right now:

  1. Make soft skills the drivers of instruction. These are commonly known as the development and cultivation of emotional intelligence and relational leadership skills. In the Anaheim Union High School District, we call these the 5Cs: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity and compassion (including self-compassion). These are critical building blocks of lifelong skills for success.
  2. Partner with businesses, non-profits and community colleges to develop internships, mentorships, certificates and dual credit opportunities, focusing on hard skills or industry specific knowledge and applied learning experiences.
  3. Invest in teacher capacity for creativity and innovation, supporting them in upskilling through the National Standards for Quality Online Learning where they can learn how to use technology, including mastering learning management systems.

In our current high stakes world where the U.S. is rapidly sliding backwards in innovation and problem solving, it is vital that students get vested early in solving the world’s problems through the lens of social justice and compassion, so that they can be positioned to create new jobs and industries which will help them individually, but more importantly, help propel the country forward in an increasingly uncertain and volatile economy.

There is a Zen Buddhist saying that is simple but especially resonates: “The obstacle is the way.”

Covid-19 is the obstacle, but it is also the way forward. Now is not the time to have this disease push us back to the old ways. Let us instead move forward, on the path together, with courage and compassion. That is the way.

•••

Michael Matsuda is superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Samuel Bingham 2 months ago2 months ago

    This op-Ed perfectly embodies what AUHSD has been trying to instill in its students, even before the pandemic! I believe that Superintendent Matsuda and his district are the pioneers of the future of public education: career-building through exploratory opportunities that promote creativity and soft skills over test scores and grades, all in an increasingly virtual environment. Thank you for spreading what you’ve already been preaching to us students Mr. Matsuda!

  2. Renae Bryant, Ed.D. 2 months ago2 months ago

    Times of great change call for educational transformations of vision and pedagogy, as well as paradigm shifts and shattering. This is such a time. Focusing on soft/workability skills, collaborating with community partners for the benefit of our students, and empowering staff to implement innovative practices is the way. Thank you Superintendent Michael Matsuda for modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, and empowering other to act.

  3. Tracy Olson 2 months ago2 months ago

    Mr. Matsuda, superintendent and visionary for AUHSD, gets it. Soft skills and up skills are what our students need to be prepared for the future. What a great time as an educator, to be part of public education history. Creativity, innovation and up-skilling are the only way to embrace the inevitable future and the unknown.

  4. Roxanna Hernandez, Ed.D 2 months ago2 months ago

    As the corona virus reshapes education, it is great to have a forward thinking leader like Superintendent Matsuda. As the demands for the future workforce continues to change at a rapid pace we need to upskill our youth; they are the future employers/employees. Thank you for calling on educators and school leaders to stay relevant in this age of constant innovation. It is our responsibility to take the lead and invest in upskilling … Read More

    As the corona virus reshapes education, it is great to have a forward thinking leader like Superintendent Matsuda. As the demands for the future workforce continues to change at a rapid pace we need to upskill our youth; they are the future employers/employees. Thank you for calling on educators and school leaders to stay relevant in this age of constant innovation. It is our responsibility to take the lead and invest in upskilling our youth and pave the way forward to a sustainable future.

  5. Amanda Bean 2 months ago2 months ago

    Obstacles (adversity) are how growth and change occur. I am proud of AUHSD for seizing this opportunity to make education relevant to students and not just trying to do the same old thing in this new environment. COVID itself is terrible. However, because of this pandemic, we have the opportunity to make a real shift in our practices that will make a real difference in the lives and futures of our students. … Read More

    Obstacles (adversity) are how growth and change occur. I am proud of AUHSD for seizing this opportunity to make education relevant to students and not just trying to do the same old thing in this new environment.

    COVID itself is terrible. However, because of this pandemic, we have the opportunity to make a real shift in our practices that will make a real difference in the lives and futures of our students. This environment is the most realistic training for the world of work- anyone not embracing that is missing the boat.

  6. Gary Humphreys 2 months ago2 months ago

    Michael Matsuda was my superintendent at the Anaheim Union High School District. He is an insightful man and a perfect leader for the times we are in. As I read the article I also read between the lines…therein lies the need for leadership through compassionate change.

  7. Tyler Sherman 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you, Michael Matsuda, for writing this. AUHSD is ahead of the game in pushing back against the status quo and inspiring their teachers to be innovative and build off these soft skills you spoke to. The line, "We need to stop pining for the past and wake up to the fact that this is a teachable moment.." really stood out to me, and I know that when you let your teachers loose and give … Read More

    Thank you, Michael Matsuda, for writing this. AUHSD is ahead of the game in pushing back against the status quo and inspiring their teachers to be innovative and build off these soft skills you spoke to. The line, “We need to stop pining for the past and wake up to the fact that this is a teachable moment..” really stood out to me, and I know that when you let your teachers loose and give them agency, they will create something unique. I appreciate your forward-thinking and your ability to fight back against the status quo and question who the traditional school model is serving. Our society is forever changing, and we need to adapt to a society that meets the need of all students.

  8. Eric Tenorio 2 months ago2 months ago

    I appreciate this article. As we begin the school year, for many districts this feat may seem daunting. As someone who has collaborated with businesses and community partners to establish partnerships for innovative mentorship experiences, I can say firsthand that the vast majority of partners are eager to support our 7-12 students in upskilling their soft and hard skills. Many partners see such collaboration as a value-added opportunity for students and their industries. For students, … Read More

    I appreciate this article. As we begin the school year, for many districts this feat may seem daunting. As someone who has collaborated with businesses and community partners to establish partnerships for innovative mentorship experiences, I can say firsthand that the vast majority of partners are eager to support our 7-12 students in upskilling their soft and hard skills. Many partners see such collaboration as a value-added opportunity for students and their industries. For students, the personal growth that happens in para-professional internships far outweigh what any test preparation experience may provide. Kudos!

  9. Dr. Richard M. Ramirez, Ed.D. 2 months ago2 months ago

    Using baseball parlance, S/Matsuda hit a "Grand Slam" in his most insightful article. His assessment and directional narrative warrant the attention of state legislators, K-12 and post-secondary policy-makers and G/Newsom. In the military, even after rigorous training, once one is out in the field and dealing with overwhelming situations, once is taught to "adapt to the situation" in order to survive. Mike's piece is "hard core" and should be viewed as a "spearhead" relative to the current education challenges. To … Read More

    Using baseball parlance, S/Matsuda hit a “Grand Slam” in his most insightful article. His
    assessment and directional narrative warrant the attention of state legislators, K-12 and
    post-secondary policy-makers and G/Newsom. In the military, even after rigorous training,
    once one is out in the field and dealing with overwhelming situations, once is taught to
    “adapt to the situation” in order to survive. Mike’s piece is “hard core” and should be
    viewed as a “spearhead” relative to the current education challenges. To do otherwise,
    we will be failing our students. Kudos to S/Matsuda for his excellent article.

  10. Kimberly 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you Michael Matsuda! Wow! Someone with credibility speaks out as a visionary and sees the big picture! Now is that time for that long overdue overhaul/reform to the American education system. Let's not wallow in grief, talking in circles of how to return to an already failing system. Our children won't be "left behind" , an illusive benchmark, procured from a system that fuels our fears, and runs … Read More

    Thank you Michael Matsuda!

    Wow! Someone with credibility speaks out as a visionary and sees the big picture!
    Now is that time for that long overdue overhaul/reform to the American education system. Let’s not wallow in grief, talking in circles of how to return to an already failing system. Our children won’t be “left behind” , an illusive benchmark, procured from a system that fuels our fears, and runs our lives for an economy that is crumbling.

    We can reconnect our hearts and minds during this pandemic reality. Let’s acknowledge this golden opportunity as a gift for future generations. We can shift, we can imagine, dream, and collaborate. We can do better!

  11. Jaron Fried 2 months ago2 months ago

    I couldn't agree more! Educators all over the world have been given a tremendous opportunity to align our priorities with the drivers for the world of work and life. The soft skills, hard skills and a growth mindset (upskilling) are what our students need more than ever. Kudos to your forward thinking and willingness to resist the status quo. I think we can all agree that what are students are facing and preparing … Read More

    I couldn’t agree more! Educators all over the world have been given a tremendous opportunity to align our priorities with the drivers for the world of work and life. The soft skills, hard skills and a growth mindset (upskilling) are what our students need more than ever. Kudos to your forward thinking and willingness to resist the status quo. I think we can all agree that what are students are facing and preparing for is vastly different than generations before them.

  12. Manuel Colon 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you for the vision of education. We all need to see what the global economy has been telling us for a while. Soft skills and upskilling is what our young children need to be successful now.

  13. Christine Handson 2 months ago2 months ago

    Visionary. Solid advice.

  14. Bo Loney 2 months ago2 months ago

    Can I ask, one more time, that we please stop simplifying SAT scores into the "haves" and "haves not" and those that had test prep. I think it's wrong to keep reinforcing a stereotype and dismissing some students that didn't have everything handed to them, had the natural intellectual ability and/or worked really hard for years. Please stop devaluing students' achievements. Their identities and their future potential for beneficial contributions to … Read More

    Can I ask, one more time, that we please stop simplifying SAT scores into the “haves” and “haves not” and those that had test prep. I think it’s wrong to keep reinforcing a stereotype and dismissing some students that didn’t have everything handed to them, had the natural intellectual ability and/or worked really hard for years. Please stop devaluing students’ achievements. Their identities and their future potential for beneficial contributions to the human race should be acknowledged and valued.

    The movement to devalue and get rid of the SAT already moved forward regardless of the over 200 page report proving the SAT had value. Let the narrative go and leave the students have their identities and achievements back. You already won.