American businesses use an acronym to describe the post pandemic world: VUCA, an acronym first coined by the military after the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s.  VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.  Corporate survival strategies in the VUCA world are based on the principle of continuous adaptation and permanent learning of organizations, ideas pioneered by MIT’s Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline.

For businesses to survive, VUCA quite simply means to be nimble or die. They need system elasticity that can respond to volatile events as “opportunities.”  More than ever, corporations that will thrive in the post-Pandemic world have to become “Learning Organizations.” 

What does VUCA mean for schools? It means we cannot prepare for a new future based on past mental models, models based on standardized tests, top-down governance, bureaucratic operations, and lack of collaboration with higher education, business, non-profit, and community partners.

Like businesses, schools must transform into nimble learning organizations.

The Pandemic will leave many VUCA potholes that education institutions will have to build over, around, or through. Schools and students will be on the frontline facing issues of increased poverty, rising healthcare costs, increased unemployment and underemployment, racial tensions, environmental issues, lack of access to high speed internet, mental health, declining enrollment, and other challenges that cannot be anticipated.

More than ever, it means students must graduate from our systems with a “growth mindset;” a mindset based on 21st Century Skills; Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication, Creativity, and Compassion. More than ever, students need to develop into citizens who are capable of addressing these unprecedented VUCA challenges, and who are ready for a lifetime of upskilling to thrive as job opportunities ebb and flow.

Facing the bleak prospect of entering a prolonged recession, the Anaheim Union High School District has expanded the definition of the equity gap to include access to meaningful jobs, issues addressed by our “Career Preparedness Systems Framework (CPSF).”  The CPSF is now the focus of a California  bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva, AB 647, that will provide technical assistance for districts interested in creating meaningful workforce pathways. If signed by the governor, this technical assistance will furnish professional learning opportunities for other districts to have the courage to implement a relevant, career focused, civically engaged, problem solving curriculum that is intended to prepare students for life instead of pursuing the traditional metrics of higher test scores.

To be clear, however, raising test scores and implementation of the CPSF are not mutually exclusive goals as attested by the Anaheim Union High School District’s traditional metrics, which have consistently outperformed districts of similar demographics.

Now, thanks to the Biden administration, school districts have been allocated significant resources to address “learning loss” in the next two years. Let us not squander this opportunity by just focusing on playing “catch-up” with traditional test score metrics. Let us be aspirational and truly transform our system.

For educational leaders who realize the urgency in shifting drivers to align with the needs of workforce and life preparedness, this framework provides a cohesive and concrete way to implement the new vision. The CPSF encompasses three areas that schools need to focus on: 21st century skills (development of relational and emotional intelligence);  Technical skills (mastery of specific job related skills through certificates and dual credit community college course completion); and development of Student Voice and Purpose.

Through implementation of the Career Preparedness Systems Framework, we can build a new transformative educational model that will help our country continue to be a world leader in innovation and job creation into the next century.

The big lesson from this pandemic is that school systems cannot adapt to VUCA changes without transforming into learning organizations. As the guru of learning organizations, Peter Senge states,  “Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life.”

Michael Matsuda is a nationally recognized 21st century educational leader known for innovation, entrepreneurship, and compassion. Under his leadership, the Anaheim Union High School District has built a new educational model incorporating “reverse engineered” career pathways in partnership with higher education, private, and non-profit sectors, which have extended and transformed educational opportunities for all students.

Before assuming the role of superintendent in March 2014, Mr. Matsuda spent 22 years as an educator in the Anaheim Union High School District. He began teaching at Orangeview Junior High School, where he was twice selected as Teacher of the Year. He also taught honors English classes at Oxford Academy. He received his BA from UCLA, MPA from USC, his teaching credential from Chapman University, and administrative credential from CSUF.

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