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New School Role Seen Critical To Respond to Modern Economy

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By Jeff Archer
Washington

By most accounts, the U.S. economy has been on a roll. Millions of jobs have been created in the past few years and the stock market has soared.

Yet anxiety over job security has become a highly charged election-year issue. While some long-stagnant industries have begun hiring, several of the nation's largest corporations are laying off thousands of workers.

The question of how well the American worker is doing has fueled current debates over free trade, immigration, and the minimum wage. Now, educators are being drawn into the fray.

Unless the schools adapt to meet the rapidly changing needs of employers, business leaders warn, the income disparities in the U.S. labor force may grow worse.

In a report released here last week, a group of more than 250 business leaders and educators spelled out changes they believe are necessary to ensure that American schools give students the skills they'll need.

Hand-wringing over workforce skills is nothing new. But the report from the Committee for Economic Development says there is a new dimension to what's at stake.

"The labor market is now being affected by education in much more profound ways than before," said Van Doorn Ooms, a chief author of the report from the New York City-based research group.

"American Workers and Economic Change" analyzes how advanced technology and global competition have placed new demands on American workers. Frank P. Doyle, who recently retired from his post as the executive vice president of the General Electric Co., chaired the team that drafted it.

Though the scope of the report's proposals ranges from business regulation to welfare to worker retraining, reform of K-12 education emerges as a crucial element in assuring that American workers can compete.

The recommendations for school reform draw on earlier CED reports, but this latest study marks the first time the group has linked education so strongly with income disparities.

As the CED report points out, the needs of the future workforce have been dictated by the changes that have swept through industry in the past decade.

Earnings Gap

Many companies have lowered their production costs by updating technology. This has led to a shift from placing a premium on workers with seniority to workers best able to acquire new skills.

As companies such as the Big Three automakers have begun hiring again after years of downsizing, recruits are finding that employers have upped the ante on required skills.

"It was very clear that those who have done the best are those who have the most education," said Sandra Kessler Hamburg, the CED's director of education and special projects.

For example, American workers who use computers earn 10 percent to 15 percent more than those who don't.

For these reasons, the report says, "a significant danger of the new economy's increased rewards for skill is that, in practice, investments in human capital may widen the economic gap between those with knowledge and those without."

'Too Modest a Goal'

"Our education system doesn't appear to be closing the gap substantially," Mr. Ooms said. "Education in the long span of American history has tended to be a leveling force in American society. Given these changes, there is a possibility that education and training will become a force for disparity and division."

The report acknowledges some gains by the public schools, such as the doubling from 1982 to 1992 in the proportion of high school graduates who took advanced algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.

But, "restoring earlier performance levels is now too modest a goal," it argues. "American schools are falling further behind the escalating skill requirements of the new American workplace."

Generally, the CED report sees the solution in "performance-driven education" and recommends changes aimed at holding students to higher standards and holding educators more accountable for results. (See box, this page.)

More specifically, the report proposes that schools link their curricula more to employers' requirements to give students greater incentives. "Curricula should allow all students to mix 'academic' and 'applied' methods and materials in ways that lead to both academic achievement and success in the workplace," the report argues.

The group also calls for greater emphasis on students who are not headed for college, a recommendation hailed by many vocational-education experts.

"Our K-12 system has focused more on preparing people for college," said Daisy Stewart, an education professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg and the president-elect of the American Vocational Association. "That tends to be what principals brag about, and it tends to be where the emphasis is placed by counselors."

While the CED's recommendations won praise from some quarters, the report also drew some of the suspicion many educators and policy experts have about school-reform proposals coming from industry.

A Moving Target

"I'm not entirely sure the first question for schools is how well they do career preparation," said David Paris, a professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and the author of Ideology and Educational Reform: Themes and Theories in Public Education.

"It's not clear to me that a lot of curriculum can be directed to the needs of business," he said. "What would it mean beyond some vague discussion on critical thinking?"

Supporters of the CED's recommendations acknowledge that designing a work-related curriculum isn't easy, especially when rapid change has made technological skills a moving target. Computer programs that students learn in 9th grade, for example, may be obsolete when they graduate.

"Kids should not focus quite so much on learning technical skills or learning the current infrastructure as if it's always going to be there," said Neal Goldsmith of businesstech.com, a New York City-based on-line consulting company. "Although everybody pays lip service to the idea of teaching to learn, the vast majority of teachers are not that proactive, and are still dealing with factual learning."

But many industries now demand more from workers. In addition to testing for basic literacy and math skills, prospective auto workers must now demonstrate their ability to work in teams.

Demands on Workers

Several job applicants may be asked to work together, for example, to assemble a headlight as part of the screening process, said Jim Preston, a senior vice president at Aon Consulting. The Chicago-based company helps recruit workers for businesses ranging from auto makers to banks.

Those who support stronger links between curricula and job skills say such efforts are well within the mission of public schooling in the United States.

"Most educators are deeply suspicious of economic aims in public schooling," said Marc S. Tucker, president of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy, an education reform think thank. "It is no indignity to prepare people to work."

The CED report recommends expanding such initiatives as school-to-work programs. The report highlights a Wisconsin program that allows high school students to alternate between a work environment and school.

One Milwaukee high school has created an entire curriculum for students interested in working in banking. Statewide, the apprenticeship program has grown from 21 students in the 1992-93 school year to about 730.

Carl Weigell, the chairman of Motor Castings Co., a Milwaukee company involved in the state's school-to-work program, said it gives students extra motivation. "It's really amazing to see how they're turned on by the opportunity to practice what they learn."

CED Recommendations

"American Workers and Economic Change" warns that schools are not preparing students with the skills they need for the current or future job market. The report recommends that the nation's schools do the following:

  • Emphasize performance-driven education.
  • Provide incentives for administrators, teachers, and students to raise achievement.
  • Explore innovations such as charter schools and vigorous expansion of public school choice, especially for low-income children.
  • Include site-based management to "provide schools with the autonomy and flexibility to use resources effectively."
  • Reform curricula to reflect "core disciplinary knowledge."
  • Develop and implement voluntary national standards and assessments.
  • Ensure that teacher selection, retention, and promotion "reflect demonstrated mastery of relevant disciplines."
  • Link curricula and credentials more closely to employers' skills requirements; employers should link hiring decisions more closely to student performance.
  • Ensure that counseling for noncollege-bound students is on par with counseling for college-bound students.
  • Make special efforts to improve the quality of education in less affluent school districts.

Copies of the report are available for $18 each from the Committee for Economic Development, 477 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022.

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