Great to hear President Obama talk about expanding preschool in last week's State of the Union address; less inspiring was his idea for older kids. Motivated more by fear for our floundering economy than faith in the imagination and power of youth, he proposed we "redesign" high school to focus on technical skills in science and math, which will presumably prepare kids for middle-class jobs in the technology sector. The old Sputnik approach. We've heard it before.

Yes, kids should explore science and math in school, pursue careers at Google and Los Alamos National Laboratory, if they like. But Obama's proposal is simplistic, reducing "education" to "job training."
Congressmen will applaud. The human beings who meet daily in our nation's classrooms will certainly resist.

There are other options, educational models that develop tools for economic success without ramming students with Houghton Mifflin equations. In fact, one of the best models I've seen, in my nearly two years of research with the Academy for the Love of Learning, is just up the road, at the Pojoaque Pueblo's Poeh Center.

I'd often driven past Poeh's signature building—a sort of adobe Guggenheim—but I had little idea what happened there until I arranged a visit with Phil Karshis, a friend and, for over a decade, the center's arts training coordinator. Karshis explained that when Poeh was founded in the late 1980s, unemployment in Pojoaque was around 80 percent, not unusual among Native American communities. Poeh's founders—including the pueblo's current governor, George Rivera—wanted to address this joblessness, but rejected the conventional approach of training people in technical skills for specific jobs, like dental assistants or heavy truck operators. For a small community like Pojoaque, such an approach is self-defeating: As people get trained, they relocate to urban areas where the jobs are. Unemployment among those who stay remains as high as ever.

To help folks gain economic skills without ditching the place they've lived as a people for over 1,000 years, Poeh's founders developed an adult learning center whose curriculum centers on—in Karshis' words—"Being, Sharing, Doing and Laughing."

"And Eating," he added. "Can't forget that."

Karshis led me to a jewelry-making class led by highly respected Navajo artist and Poeh graduate Fritz Casuse. The classroom was gorgeous, an open studio with museum-quality adobe walls and flagstone floors—not the drop-ceiling and drywall one might expect in a community center.

But Poeh is no typical community center. It reverses the Obama equation, expanding "job training" to "education" through an array of world-class courses in visual arts. The classes bear credit at two local colleges, but they are tuition-free, and open to anyone enrolled in any Native American tribe. There are no entrance exams or prerequisites; no lectures, textbooks or tests. There's not even a strict schedule—Casuse's students, ranging in age from late 20s to early 70s, trickled in over the course of the hour I observed.

But it works. As the students designed and crafted bracelets and necklaces, they watched one another, conferred on technique or called Casuse over for tips. They also took time for the Being, Laughing and Eating: sharing donuts, chatting about children and tribal politics, and tossing white-guy jokes at Karshis.

A woman who'd lost her husband told me the class was like "therapy"; another explained how it reconnected her to her roots. Clearly, all of the students enjoyed being there—they were lost in their work, immersed in that timeless, creative space psychologists call "flow."

But they were also making money. The jewelry they were creating was unique and of exceptional quality—and highly marketable. Poeh complements its courses with sales opportunities and entrepreneurial advice, and the success of its students proves that Obama's job-training approach is not only unimaginative, but also wrong: Schools need not fill people with predetermined industrial skills to make sure they find their places in the economy.  If we redesign high school, let's open the curriculum, not narrow it. Let's create more time and space for young people to discover their talents (including science and math), draw from their own culture and identity, and move toward becoming the creative, place-conscious, independent entrepreneurs our economy—and nation—needs.  

An SFPS graduate and former local educator, Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research what "school" could someday be. He blogs at