Book Sparks Debate Over Necessary Job Skills

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Amid all the talk about preparing students for careers in an increasingly challenging workplace, there has been little consensus on the specific skills future workers will need.

In recent months, a persuasive argument for a set of "new basic skills" that comes from an unexpected source--a book by two economists--has shot to the forefront of the debate in education policy circles.

Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy contend that the skills needed in the workplace can best be determined by examining companies that make highly efficient use of their employees' abilities.

Using case studies of high-wage companies, the two university professors outline six essential skills: the ability to do math and read at the 9th grade level or higher; to solve problems where hypotheses must be formed and tested; to work in groups; to communicate effectively orally and in writing; and to use personal computers for simple tasks like word processing.

Their book, Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy, published last September by the Free Press, has gone into a second printing, and the authors have been tapped for a host of television, newspaper, and radio interviews.

Mr. Murnane is an economist and a professor at Harvard University's graduate school of education. Mr. Levy is a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They argue that the economy has changed radically but that the skills taught in schools have not. This mismatch has resulted in a growing earnings gap between high school and college-educated workers.

A male college graduate earns twice as much as a high school graduate and nearly three times more than a high school dropout.

Such facts are well-known and often cited. But the authors use them to make the case for their set of basic skills that workers need to succeed in high-wage companies. And they draw on the experiences of those companies to advance five principles for improving the schools.

Influencing the Debate

The book is clearly a departure for the two labor-market economists, whose scholarly works have previously appeared in such publications as the Journal of Economic Literature.

"To write a book for our colleagues, the economists, was not a way to influence the policy debate," Mr. Murnane said in a recent interview here.

The book is structured around case studies of high-performance companies--like Diamond-Star Motors, the joint automaking venture between Chrysler Corp. and Mitsubishi, and Honda of America. It also chronicles the efforts of several schools to change the way they operate based on the principles gleaned from such companies.

"We felt a lot of people would advance solutions without talking about the hard work that follows," Mr. Levy said. "By leading people through step by step, we wanted to show what it really takes."

Skills Learned as Seniors

One of their most debated findings is that much of the earnings gap stems from differences in the math and reading skills of students when they were high school seniors, rather than knowledge added by a college education.

When the authors looked at the hourly wages of high school graduates who did not go on to college, they found that 1980 high school seniors with strong basic math skills earned $1.33 an hour more at age 24 than their peers with weak math skills.

"If all students left high school with strong basic skills," the authors write, "the picture would be much different."

Acquiring these skills won't automatically prepare workers to step into the most demanding jobs, the authors acknowledge.

"There are a lot of jobs that pay a middle-class wage that require a lot more than this," Mr. Murnane said. "But we would argue that, outside of professional sports, there are virtually no jobs in this economy that pay middle-class wages without at least these new basic skills."

One problem, the authors contend, is that there are few strong incentives for improving the skills of high school graduates.

"If there were some kinds of tests that lined up what your kid knew against the job requirements out there in the labor market, parents would see what the shortfall is, and they would say, 'My God, we've got to do something,'" Mr. Levy said.

'No Database Exists'

James J. Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, said the book goes too far in specifying the kinds of skills favored in the workplace.

"If one were honest about what the current evidence is, one could say that the demand has shifted in favor of skilled workers," Mr. Heckman said. "The difficulty in going beyond that--and saying that there are certain kinds of skills that are highly rewarded--is that the database simply isn't big enough to support it."

But many educators believe the two economists have made a strong case.

"What they say really speaks a lot to what we do at our school," said Mary Jo Fleming, the school-to-career coordinator at Boston High School, a work-study school in Boston. "A lot of our kids don't go to college, but they need to have some real firm basic skills if they are to succeed in work."

Five Principles for Success

Like the new basic skills themselves, the authors' five principles for improving education are hardly revolutionary: ensure that all front-line educators understand the problem; give them both the incentives and the opportunities to contribute to solutions; provide the training needed for them to pursue solutions effectively; measure progress regularly; and learn from mistakes.

"These are quite straightforward," Mr. Murnane said, "but I don't think these questions get asked very often."

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