Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy

Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy

by Richard J. Murnane

ISBN: 9780684827391

Publisher Free Press

Published in Business & Investing/Job Hunting & Careers

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Sample Chapter


Chapter 1

Preparing to Meet the Future

East Austin, Texas. Zavala Elementary School is a two-story yellow-brick structure built in 1936 and now connected by walkways to 18 portable classrooms. The school sits on tree-lined Robert Martinez Jr. Street between Santa Rita Courts and Chalmers Courts, two Hispanic public housing projects.

T. A. Vasquez lives around the corner from Zavala Elementary. All four of her children went to school there. Her third child, Cynthia, had a solid B average in first-grade math, and T. A. assumed Cynthia was doing well. Nobody at Zavala Elementary told T. A. that Cynthia and most of her classmates were scoring at the fifteenth percentile on the Texas statewide mathematics test. The problem was real but things would get better.

Cabot, Massachusetts. Audubon Elementary School is a long way from Zavala Elementary both in terms of miles (about 1,900) and in terms of money. The average Zavala family makes about $12,000 per year; the average Audubon family makes $90,000. Still, Audubon Elementary had its problems.

Sharon Wright was picking her way through broken light bulbs on the floor of her fifth-grade classroom. Earlier in the year, Sharon and seven other Cabot fifth-grade teachers took a 10-week afterschool course designed just for them. The teachers thought they would learn to lead fifth-graders in hands-on experiments on the physics of light. Instead, they got two-hour lectures on theory that kept them prisoners in their chairs. They had no chance to try the experiments they were eventually supposed to lead. Now as Sharon walked among her class of 23, with extension cords crisscrossing the floor, she winced as yet another light bulb broke. The problems were real but things would get better.

This book is about the skills students now need to succeed in the economy and how schools can change to teach those skills. We begin by visiting a set of U.S. factories and offices - two automobile factories, an insurance company, a sporting-goods wholesaler. We will see the skills required of employees and the management principles under which they work. In most of these firms, skilled employees and good management go hand in hand: a skilled person assigned to a dumb job will produce little and earn less.

Then we will visit a set of places where people are learning how to teach the skills good employers require - poor schools, rich schools, a hospital pathology laboratory, a teachers' summer "camp" in Vermont. In these places, teachers like Sharon Wright and parents like T. A. Vasquez are doing the dirty work of school improvement: building a constituency for higher standards, constructing better incentives for students, moving teacher training beyond one-day workshops, creating tests that measure what students need to learn. Much of their work also involves management principles. To raise student skills, T. A. Vasquez, Sharon Wright, and others we will meet are making an effort comparable to reengineering a midsize business. An important part of America's future depends on how well they succeed.


During the past 20 years, the skills required to succeed in the economy have changed radically, but the skills taught in most schools have changed very little. As a result of the ever-growing mismatch between the skills of most graduates and the skills required by high-wage employers, a U.S. high school diploma is no longer a ticket to the U.S. middle class.

As late as 1979, a 30-year-old man with a U.S. high school diploma earned a yearly average of $27,700, in 1993 dollars. That income, combined with a wife's earnings from a part-time lob, secured the family a solid place in the middle class. Then, almost without warning, the economy changed. By 1983 U.S. manufacturing, threatened by imports, was rapidly downsizing, and a 30-year-old man with a high school diploma earned an average of $23,000 a year, in 1993 dollars. By 1993, with computers transforming both U.S. manufacturing and U.S. services, a 30-year-old man with a high school diploma earned an average of $20,000. The significance of this decline in earnings becomes all the greater when we realize that in 1993 half of all 30-year-old men had not gone beyond high school.

By the early 1990s, the need for a quality education extended beyond high school graduates. At all levels, the economy was forcing people to become economic free agents, constantly prepared to prove their worth in the market. Today's firms increasingly set pay based on an employee's recent performance, not long-term relationships. Jobs at IBM and AT&T now end abruptly and people must resell themselves. In this world you go to war every day, and short of being a millionaire, a very good education is your best armor.

Viewed from a distance, the economy's changes represent progress, the rebuilding of the nation's economic efficiency. In both 1994 and 1995, the United States was rated the most competitive economy in the world, a ranking unthinkable a decade earlier.

But rebuilding efficiency has exacted big human costs. The costs are clearest among men and women who have not gone beyond high school, but uncertainty now affects men and women at every level. The issue is not that U.S. educational quality has declined - standardized test scores are modestly higher today than in the early 1980s. But the economy is changing much faster than the schools have improved. Many people - including roughly half of recent graduates - have an education that is no longer in demand.

The nation cannot absorb change of this magnitude without political consequences. The consequences began in the 1994 elections when all aspects of competitiveness were on display. In aggregate terms, the economy was booming: unemployment had fallen below 5.5 percent; inflation was a low 2.7 percent; labor productivity, the ultimate measure of the economy's efficiency, was growing faster than in the two previous decades. But the wages of high school graduates - younger and older, men and women - did not increase. And some men and women with college diplomas found their jobs eliminated through downsizing. For many voters, hope turned to anger, and the elections offered a variety of targets for blame: the president, Congress, welfare mothers, affirmative action, multinational corporations.

Missing from this list was a growing determinant of incomes - the quality of U.S. schools. Schools were not a high-priority issue, not even among voters with school-age children. The reason why begins in public opinion polls.

In the case of schools, American public opinion is best described as schizophrenic. When Americans are asked about schools in general, the verdict is negative. In 1995, only 20 percent of Americans rated the nation's public schools as A or B, down from 27 percent in 1986. But when American parents with children in public schools are asked about their children's schools, the picture is much brighter. In 1995, 65 percent of parents gave a rating of A or B to the school attended by their oldest child, a figure as high as in 1986. When pressed to name a problem in their local public schools, 11 percent of public school parents cited poor discipline and 8 percent cited violence. Only 4 percent faulted educational quality.

Parental satisfaction is important because when parents are dissatisfied with their children's schools, the politicians notice and the schools can change. In the last 15 years, parents of handicapped children have pushed to get their children moved into regular classes, and schools have responded. Large numbers of parents have pushed schools to teach about drug abuse, smoking, and, in some cases, AIDS; and the schools have responded. Compared to these issues, higher student skills attracted little parental interest. From a political perspective, there was not much to debate.

Why didn't parents press for more rigorous skills? It isn't that parents don't care. Among adults who rated their local schools as better than the average public school, 79 percent cited the local school's greater emphasis on high academic achievement as the primary reason. But parents have read that test scores are slowly rising. They see their children learning as much in school and doing as much homework as they did. They see that the schools are teaching their children at least as many skills as they, themselves, learned in school.

But until quite recently, many parents did not see that the skills that were sufficient to earn a good living in 1970 are not good enough today. Changes in the economy have made the standard U.S. high school education a glut on the market. These same changes require a sounder education at all levels of schooling.

Now, under the constant pounding of the economy, parental attitudes have begun to change. In the most recent Gallup poll, the percentage of adults supporting higher standards for promotion stood at 87 percent, up from 70 percent in 1979. Similarly, a 1995 poll by the Public Agenda Foundation probed parental attitudes and found beneath the surface satisfaction a growing worry that their children's education was inadequate. In this poll, 41 percent of parents with children in public schools said that a high school diploma is not a guarantee that a student has learned the basics. The results also showed strong support for a greater emphasis on basic skills and on standards for promotion and graduation. In this book, we show how teachers and parents are translating this amorphous discontent into better schools.


Suppose the increasing obsolescence of the education provided by most U.S. schools is allowed to continue. What will happen? The outcome is not hard to imagine. The children of the wealthy and clever will be clustered in privileged schools - public and private - that do emphasize appropriate skills. These children will get good education and the good jobs, and the vast majority of other children will compete for what is left.

Despite this future, some persons argue that better schools are a dead end. The economy, they say, produces only a certain number of good jobs, so educating too many people too well will only drive down the wages of skilled workers. This argument has a surface plausibility. And its logic is correct in the short run. Train more people to be physicians, and in the short run, the wages of physicians will fall. But in the long run, rising productivity raises the wages of any worker who is in demand. In 1950, the United States had one physician for every 653 people. By 1990, there was one physician for every 406 people. And yet over this time, physicians' average incomes grew from $75,000 to $180,000 (in 1993 dollars), a faster growth than occurred in the earnings of most other occupations. Over four decades, physicians could both increase their supply and increase their paychecks because they were an occupation in demand.

But suppose physicians had not been in demand. Suppose they had been like the farm laborers of 1949 whose jobs were being eliminated every day by new tractors and threshers. Faced with technical obsolescence, farm laborers had two alternatives: find a new line of work, or remain a farm laborer at ever lower wages, no matter how the economy was growing.

Many farm laborers found new work by moving to cities and taking manufacturing jobs. They could make the move because they already had the skills required for the jobs the city could offer. The corresponding move today - from displaced factory worker to customer service representative - is much harder because the customer service representative's job requires skills that many factory workers don't have.

The displaced factory worker's situation highlights the real effect of keeping education weak: the exclusion of many students from the high-skilled sectors of the economy, the sectors that by all projections will be growing and able to sustain high wages over the decades to come.


In the chapters that follow, we emphasize improvements in K-12 education, and this raises a final objection. Isn't it true, one might ask, that a student has to go to college to be middle class today? After all, the earnings of college graduates have held up quite well over the last 15 years even as the earnings of high school graduates have declined.

If four (expensive) years of college were required to enter the middle class, it would pose an enormous obstacle to mobility. Fortunately, the apparent importance of college depends as much on what K-12 schools are not doing as on what is learned in college. In Chapter 2 we show that the widening earnings gap between high school and college graduates stems in large part from differences in the mastery of basic skills when the two groups were high school seniors. In other words, as high-wage employers increasingly search for new workers with strong basic skills they tend to bypass high school graduates who did not go to college, because so many of them lack those skills. Hiring college graduates solves the problem of finding workers with stronger basic skills, but college is a very expensive employment agency. If all students left high school with strong basic skills, the picture would be much different.


The challenge facing Sharon Wright and T. A. Vasquez begins with two questions:

* What are the New Basic Skills - the skills needed today to earn a middle-class income?
* What are the principles around which a school can restructure to teach these skills to all children?

The answer to the first question comes from our review of U.S. businesses in Chapters 2 and 3. Along with the characteristics that employers have always sought in new workers - reliability, a positive attitude, and a willingness to work hard - the employee-recruiting and work practices in firms paying high wages show the growing importance of a new set of skills:

* The hard skills: basic mathematics, problem-solving and reading abilities at levels much higher than many high school graduates now attain
* The "soft" skills: the ability to work in groups and to make effective oral and written presentations - skills many schools do not teach
* The ability to use personal computers to carry out simple tasks like word processing

These are the New Basic Skills needed by all students, whether they go on to college or not, regardless of gender, regardless of race.

The answer to the second question comes from our visits to teaching sites in Chapters 4 through 7. In unexpected ways, the management principles emerging at these sites look very much like the management principles firms now use to manage skilled workers. Comparing selected schools and firms shows why this is no coincidence.


Many analysts argue that schools can learn from business because competition forces business "to get it right."


Excerpted from "Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy" by Richard J. Murnane. Copyright © 1996 by Richard J. Murnane. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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