Few Businesses Bolster Training Programs To Make Up for School Shortfalls, Poll Finds

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While employers and higher-education officials are extremely critical of the quality of precollegiate education, business has not significantly bolstered its training programs to make up for the shortfalls it finds in education, according to a new survey.

The $150,000 report, released late last month by a coalition of economic and education groups, also found a wide gap between business leaders' opinions and those of parents and students, who generally hold far more positive views about their schools.

"Clearly the evaluation by employers and educators of student preparation is the most devastating part of this report," says the study by Louis Harris & Associates. The report was sponsored by the Committee for Economic Development in cooperation with the Business Roundtable, the National Education Goals Panel, and the National Council on Education Standards and Testing.

"At the same time," the report continues, "these findings also show the limited willingness of these groups to provide support to make up for the shortfalls of the education system. This is particularly true in the case of employers."

The survey of officials of 402 companies found 30 percent giving a positive rating for recent high school graduates' ability to read well, and 22 percent crediting students with having learned basic mathematics. But only 12 percent said recent graduates could write well, and just 10 percent believed they had "learned to solve complex problems."

Higher educators' assessment of student achievement was only slightly more positive.

Few Remedial Programs

Despite those low ratings, just 14 percent of employers reported having an "organized program of job training of which a major part is teaching basic skills, such as math, reading, and writing."

No more than 25 percent of the business respondents said they had made "major changes" in the way their organizations "have adapted to the changed caliber of recent graduates." And 67 percent said they had made no major shifts to respond to the changing workforce, which corporate leaders frequently have said must be higher-skilled.

Business groups regularly point out that companies spend an estimated $30 billion a year on training and retraining, much of which they say goes for skills that should have been taught in school. But the new study would appear to support critics who charge that most of that money goes to middle and upperlevel management training, not remedial education.

"One of the concerns I had about the study was that it would look as though business and higher education were blaming all their problems on the school systems," said Robert F. Wagner, president of the Harris Education Research Center, which conducted the poll. "When it was finished, I was struck by how limited their involvement actually was [in improving basic skills], particularly among employers."

Reacting to the survey, Sar A. Levitan, a labor economist at George Washington University's Center for Social Policy Studies, said the findings showed that corporate claims of support for remedial education training largely have been rhetorical flourishes to keep abreast of "the fashion of the day."

"It makes for nice luncheon talk, but at the same time, there is very little evidence employers are actually doing this training," he contended.

Mr. Levitan also argued that a close examination of the 14 percent that reported having basic-skills training would reveal that many of them did not commit sufficient time and resources to be effective.

'Reality Gap' Seen

While admitting surprise over the training finding, the business groups that commissioned the study chose to highlight the survey's "reality gap" between the higher-education and business perceptions of education quality and the views of students and parents.

The percentage of students with a positive view of their own achievements averaged at least 40 percentage points higher in each area than that of employers.

The perceptual gulf between employers and students has been alluded to for years, noted Sandra Kessler Hamburg, the C.E.D.'s education-studies director. It has not been backed up with statistics until now, however, and the gap revealed by the survey is far wider than expected.

While the business view of students' writing skills was highly negative, 66 percent of 511 recent graduates surveyed had a positive opinion of their own writing. Sixty-eight percent had a good opinion of their math skills 46 percentage points higher than business respondents'.

And 73 percent of the students said they had a "real sense of dedication to work," a commitment seen by only 20 percent of employers.

Parents were slightly more critical. Of the 250 surveyed, 65 percent were positive about their children's math education; 56 percent thought their children wrote well; and 67 percent found a "dedication to work."

"To put it succinctly: The current crop of students and their parents are deluding themselves," the report concludes.

The data provide a strong mandate for national academic-achievement standards, the report's sponsors said. Over 80 percent of survey respondents backed such standards.

The report, "An Assessment of American Education: The View of Employers, Higher Educators, the Public, Recent Students, and Their Parents," was underwritten by a grant to the C.E.D. from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Copies are available for $15 each from Louis Harris & Associates Information Services, 630 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10111.

Vol. 11, Issue 06, Page 5

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