Schools Urged To Revamp Instruction To Stress Workforce Skills

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Washington--Classroom instruction should begin to focus heavily on teamwork, budgeting, explanation, and computer use, argues a report by a Labor Department commission on the skills needed to survive in the modern workforce.

The report, issued here this month by the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, suggests that such skills must be given a prominent role in a wide range of subjects if students are to avoid the dead-end jobs that await those unprepared for an increasingly technical workplace.

More than half of all youths leave school without the knowledge required for "a good job," warned the panel of government officials, business leaders, and educators assembled last year by then-Secretary of Labor Elizabeth H. Dole.

Rectifying that situation, with its troubling implications for the future of the U.S. economy, requires basic changes in the approach taken by the schools, officials said.

"We need to construct a system that starts by saying, 'You can do it,"' said the current Labor Secretary, Lynn Martin. "I don't think this system requires us to do anything but teach in a different way."

William E. Brock, chairman of the scans panel and a former Secretary of Labor, called the report "the first concrete stage in the President's pledge to renew American education."

The scans data for the first time explains to educators what businesses need, Mr. Brock added.

"Despite a decade of reform efforts, we can demonstrate little improvement in student achievement," the report concludes. "One reason for the lack of educational improvement lies in the confusing signals exchanged between the education and business communities.

" That lack of communication has reinforced many students' belief that their schoolwork has little bearing on their job prospects or future success, the scans group contended.

Educators said the scans report provides both valuable new information and new challenges for their profession.

The study offers educators a unique glimpse at what employers expect, noted Superintendent of Public Instruction H. Dean Evans of Indiana, who has launched a program of student work-site visits to emphasize the report's findings.

'What Employers Want'

"Teachers don't know how to do better in providing the new skills for the workforce. They deal in the theoretical realm," Mr. Evans said. "They know, 'If I can make my presentation more pragmatic, it would turn on more students,' but the problem is that teachers have not been out in the workforce to see what is happening."

Others agreed that the report fills a void in the growing dialogue between schools and business.

"Schools will be pleased that scans has provided them with the first concrete sense of what employers want from them, and it's not narrow vocationalism," said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "But they will find that because scans argues against separate and unequal academic, vocational, and general tracks, their challenge is to teach history and technology and literature so these and other subjects connect as much with the student who wants to work for the auto industry or own a restaurant as with the student who wants to become a lawyer."

Defining 'Know-How'

The scans group said the "workplace know-how" it wants to foster consists of five competencies--defined as the productive use of re sources, interpersonal skills, information, systems, and technology-- built on a foundation of basic and thinking skills and well-developed personal qualities.

The commission plans to develop outlines for 50 jobs, which will classify what students should know in order to begin at various stages.

For example, the report says that the skills needed to be work-ready in the food-services industry include:

  • Resources. Develop cost estimates and proposals to justify replacement of kitchen equipment, arrange a delivery schedule, and understand blueprints.
  • Interpersonal. Participate in a staff meeting with a multicultural group of workers.
  • Information. Use spreadsheets to estimate food costs and compile a weekly menu.
  • Systems. Determine the average and maximum waiting time for customers and find a way to cut the wait by 20 percent.
  • Technology. Evaluate three Brands of ovens and make a purchasing recommendation.

"With proper preparation, all student could achieve at least the work- ready level," the report contends, adding that the panel's goal is to define proficencies that can both be traced back into middle-school and elementary courses and extrapolated into higher education.

"Real know-how," the report states, "cannot be taught in isolation; students need practice in the application of these skills."

New Credential Sought

Beyond developing profiles for such occupations as electrician, bank teller, and truck driver, the scans group said it is focusing on a new assessment for 8th and 12th graders "that can provide the basis for a new kind of high-school credential."

Scans officials said that assessment system would be at the front of their agenda over the next six months. The report notes that the group is seeking a work-based system that would gain the attention of employers and give students an incentive to work harder. Such an assessment would also encourage teachers to use portfolio assessments of student work and participation.

Scans participants also are working to spread the message of their report. Ms. Martin, for example, has pitched the plan during stops at the Labor Department's regional offices.

One offshoot of the report is already evident in Indiana, where some students are spending part of the summer conducting a survey of employers that will enable them to make presentations to their class mates and parents about what skills are used at local work sites.

"A major part of this task involves persuading students, teachers, parents, and business leaders that workplace know-how is not some thing 'you just pick up,"' the report argues. "It can be defined. It should be taught. It must be learned."

Vol. 10, Issue 40, Page 11

Published in Print: July 31, 1991, as Schools Urged To Revamp Instruction To Stress Workforce Skills
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