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Labor Panel To Outline Changes Needed in Teaching, Testing To Prepare Workers

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By Lonnie Harp

Washington--A Labor Department panel charged with outlining the skills needed by workers in the modern economy will deliver a step-by-step guide to massive changes needed in teaching practices and student assessment, according to a report designed to serve as a blueprint for the commission's work.

In defining job skills, the preliminary document argues, the commission should go beyond listing essential capabilities and seek to develop a unique strategy to help schools meet the new targets.

At a public meeting last month, members of the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills said they expected that their final report, scheduled for release next year, would produce shock waves in the education community and lead to a major reassessment of the way in which schools seek to prepare young people for the world of work.

"Put simply, lists alone have not changed education in the past, and they are unlikely to do so in the future," the commission's background paper reports. "To change education at the level necessary to improve workplace preparation, appropriate outcome measures must be available and used, and instruction must build on an understanding of real-world situations."

Key Jobs Identified

To that end, the commission plans to identify 50 jobs--ranging from farming and manufacturing-production-team supervision to retail sales and telemarketing--that are likely to have an important role in the economy of the future. It will then break those jobs down according to the tasks performed and skill levels required, and paint for educators a picture of each worker's routine.

The commission also will set competency targets for 16-year-olds in each of the jobs and recommend skill levels that should be mastered in earlier grades.

The background paper chooses as an example the job of medical transcriber, who translates doctors' narratives of patients' treatment. The job description includes the transcriber's workload, routine problems, and interaction with a supervisor.

Through the four-paragraph description, authors of the report intend, educators will be able to identify the reading and writing levels, communication and decisionmaking skills, and medical knowledge required by the job.

"People learn best when they are taught in a context of application--in a functional context," the background paper says. "If teachers and students know what performance is required for success in modern work contexts, schools can organize instruction to teach the skills that support such performance--and test developers and businesses can develop reliable assessments of performance."

Focus on Work Skills

The commission also wants educators and test developers to refocus their emphasis from the knowledge required to finish school to the skills needed to enter the workforce, according to leading educators on the scans panel.

"We need to say, 'These are the competencies it takes to enter into the economic mainstream. Here's what's needed to help you get into the economy and help you stay there,"' said Dale Parnell, president of the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges. "We've got to tell people that higher skills are going to be required in the future."

Such a fundamental shift in emphasis could have an immediate impact on testing and curriculum, according to Lauren Resnick, director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

"School testing for years has pretty much been pencil-and-paper, multiple-choice questions," she said. "When we talk about functioning in a work environment, pencil and paper takes its place among other tasks, and we have to look at other ways to get at that activity."

That approach would give weight to assessments based on work port folios and student projects, Ms. Resnick explained. "That's the major way people are assessed on the job, and it is virtually absent in the school environment," she said.

The background paper gives a strong endorsement to cognitive-learning research by Ms. Resnick and others. The method relies heavily on hands-on learning and student problem-solving and investigation.

"Cognitive science strongly implies that people learn best when they are taught in the context of situations, activities, and problems," the scans background paper argues. "Learning in context provides learning and therefore motivation to learn. It helps to break down the separation between knowledge and practice that has resulted from the formal approach to instruction in schools and the resulting mismatch between school and work." Among the key functional skills the commission argues are absent in most schools are resource management and organization, information management, social interaction, systems performance and behavior, human and technology interaction, and motivational skills.

To create programs that incorporate the missing skills, the commission's guide maintains, schools will have to break down the distinctions between academic and vocational studies, abstract knowledge and practice, and school-based and work-based learning.

Courting Educators

In addition to blazing a new trail from the classroom to the worksite, members of the panel said, the commission also will have to find teachers and administrators willing to make the journey. At last month's meeting, education officials urged the commission to begin courting school officials immediately.

"All of the work of the commission will be for naught unless we can get teachers to accept it," said Paul Cole, a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and secretary-treasurer of the New York afl-cio He added that scans officials should work to find state and local educators willing to experiment with pilot programs. "If we can get people to say, 'We want to be a part of this,' that's the most important thing," Mr. Cole said. "I don't think we ought to wait until the commission issues its report."At the same time, the commission does not intend to use hard-sell tactics on educators, said Madelyn Jennings, a senior vice president of the Gannett Company who will oversee the commission's dissemination efforts.

"We face a world where many students and teachers do not understand the world of work," Ms. Jennings said. "We have to be sensitive to the potential of stepping on education's toes."

But Roberts T. Jones, assistant secretary of labor for employment and training, said the commission's work comes at an opportune time in the national education-reform effort.

"When you look at what is the next step, it is very difficult to continue to talk about systemic reform if there aren't specific events and issues that begin to take place," he said.

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