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The Case for New Standards in Education

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The end of the manufacturing era means that our schools must now educate all our children to a level never required before.

Human capital, as Lester Thurow, Robert Reich, and many others have argued, will be the source of comparative advantage in the 21st-century global economy. Although the overall U.S. economy has done well over the past 25 years, not all Americans shared equally in its rewards. The top fifth of American families were the overwhelming beneficiaries--the bottom three-fifths lost ground, and the second fifth were largely stagnant--and the resulting income inequality threatens the long-term viability of our economy and the stability of our democracy.

Economists are generally agreed that although the sources of this inequality are many--an eroding minimum wage, the declining power of unions to win large settlements at the bargaining table, and growing global competition--fully half the explanation can be attributed to "new technologies that favor the better educated."

Our schools always did one thing well: They educated the top fifth of their students. The performance of the remaining 80 percent didn't matter because, upon leaving school, they entered a robust manufacturing economy that provided abundant jobs for those with limited skills. Although the work was hard, the pay was good--good enough after World War II and into the 1960s for the wife of a typical blue-collar worker to stay at home and raise the kids and still have enough left over for the family to buy a boat or recreational vehicle.

But those days are gone, and they are not coming back. According to the 1990 book America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages, if companies around the globe can now buy foolproof machinery to compensate for deficient worker skills, and if people in other countries using this machinery will work for $5 a day, let alone the $10 or $15 an hour that American workers want, we cannot compete on the basis of wage. We can compete only on the basis of skill.

The end of the manufacturing era, with its well-paying jobs for people with limited skills, means that our schools must now educate all our children to a level never required before. For over a century, our schools taught millions upon millions of immigrants and farmers to respect authority, to show up on time, to work hard, and to repeat monotonous tasks. In short, schools were the vehicle through which an entire labor force was socialized to accept the discipline of the industrial era.

But these are not the skills needed in a postindustrial, global economy. The battleground of the future will be economic, not military. Nations are fighting for domination of the high-value-added industries--computers and software, robotics, civilian aviation, synthetic materials, microelectronics, biotechnology, and telecommunications--that pay high wages and offer their employees living standards American workers have grown to expect.

While we still desire a strong work ethic, we must appreciate the implications for education of an economy that changes with striking and unprecedented rapidity. This rapidly changing economy requires workers who are flexible, adaptable, quick learners, critical thinkers, and above all else, problem-solvers. And these are precisely the skills our schools are not teaching.

Nowhere in America—even in our best school districts—are the majority of students performing at world-class levels.

Most suburban residents compare their schools with those of the big cities they surround. Because on average they have lower dropout rates, better achievement scores, and higher college-enrollment rates, suburbanites conclude their schools are fine and the problems reside in the cities. Unfortunately, there is no comfort in this suburban-to-urban school comparison. Worse, this comparison functions as a sedative, a soporific that has put Americans to sleep. It has left us complacent, thinking that the education problem lies elsewhere, in our cities with their large, poor, disproportionately nonwhite populations.

Ample evidence from the National Academy of Sciences' Third International Mathematics and Science Study and the results from the internationally benchmarked reference exams developed by the national New Standards project make clear that nowhere in America--even in our best school districts--are the majority of students performing at world-class levels.

I have presented these deeply troubling observations about divergent human-capital and economic trends in many lectures over the years, and at this point in the presentation the question would inevitably be posed: "Well professor, what should we do about it?" and my response would be "radical school reform." I would then be asked, "What does that entail?" and I would propose several principles, but the truth was I didn't have a clue.

Now I do: standards-based school reform. However, don't take my word for it. In March 1996, 41 governors and 49 chief executive officers of America's largest corporations met at what has been called a national education summit. They agreed that the No. 1 priority for the nation's schools was the adoption of rigorous aca-demic standards and internationally benchmarked assessments.

Their consensus appears to be supported by most Americans, because surveys of public opinion find extremely high levels of support for standards-based school reform among all demographic groups. Yet there is also widespread confusion about the actual content of standards reform. In southeastern Pennsylvania, we've made real progress--we've formed a consortium of 16 school districts committed to standards-based school reform and a coalition of 18 chambers of commerce to support them--by describing more adequately the revolutionary pedagogy of the standards movement to business leaders, school board members, teachers, parents, and administrators. ("Explaining Standards: A 12-Point Talking Paper," This Week's News.)

We can talk about this subject in dry analytic terms: "Once our schools were perfectly aligned with our economy. They no longer are. We need to realign them." Or we can say with passion, "Sending a child into the economy of the future with the skills currently being taught in our schools is the equivalent of sending a child into a snowstorm dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of shorts."

Anyone who sails knows that you can turn a small sailboat on a dime. But if on a foggy day you're on the bow of a large ocean liner--say, in light of the foregoing discussion, the Titanic--and see an iceberg, you will surely hit it. You can turn an ocean liner, but you cannot turn it on a dime. Societies are just like ocean liners. Now is the time to turn the wheel.

You can turn an ocean liner, but you cannot turn it on a dime. Societies are just like ocean liners. Now is the time to turn the wheel.

Crisis government, which has served America well on so many occasions, will not be able to rescue us if we fail to act now. When Social Security or Medicare run out of funds, the U.S. Congress may change the rules, raise taxes, and resolve the crisis. But, in the case of educational standards, government will fail America if it delays, because it takes a generation to educate a labor force.

Nor will there even be a crisis as we have grown to understand that term, because business is not waiting for the problem to build to a breaking point. Already, businesses are inducing mothers to leave home and come to work, at least part time. They are exporting back-office jobs by satellite to countries whose K-12 schools are working better than ours. They are importing the best and brightest from around the globe. They are robotizing.

Many professional educators see the standards movement as a fad, yet another gimmick to fix the schools, such as "open classrooms" and the "new math." They could not be more wrong. Neither is the standards movement an effort to turn public schools into vocational schools. "We [business] can teach [students] how to be marketing people. We can teach them how to manage balance sheets," said Louis V. Gerstner Jr., IBM's CEO and the host of the 1996 education summit. "What is killing us is having to teach them to read and to compute and to communicate and to think."

The late Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers understood the challenge. The same can be said of Bob Chase, the new president of the National Education Association. While the traditional union agenda--salaries, benefits, working conditions--remains important, Mr. Chase argued in his inaugural address, it is "utterly inadequate" for the future. The NEA, a strong supporter of standards-based reform, must become, he said, the "champion of quality teaching and quality public schools in the United States." Either we "revitalize them from within," Mr. Chase warned, "or they will be dismantled from without."

The human-capital-development challenge is not one among many. It is the greatest challenge facing America. Creating a future labor force that can compete successfully in the 21st-century global economy is an intimidating task because key changes must occur in every component of the nation's human-capital-development system, not simply our K-12 schools, where standards-based reform must serve as an indispensable foundation.

The floor on which Americans have been standing for the past two decades has been tilting, and people without real skills have been sliding to reduced-wage levels. The angle of the tilt in this floor will grow sharper with each passing year as global trade and technology advance. If we want to anchor our children and grandchildren to firm economic ground, we'll have to provide them with lifelines fashioned of genuine skill and high-quality education.

We can succeed, provided that we admit the nature of the crisis, recognize that a generation's effort lies ahead, and get to work now. This determination will take us into the next millennium secure in the future of our economy, assured in the quality of life we will bequeath to our children, and confident in the capacity of our democracy to endure.


Theodore Hershberg is a professor of public policy and history at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the director of its Center for Greater Philadelphia.

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