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Study Gives High Schools ‘F’ in Preparing Students for Jobs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

America’s high schools are failing to prepare the nation’s youth for jobs of the 1990s because they are not teaching students about “systems” and other key “competencies.”

That is the conclusion of a government-sponsored study that says more than half of all graduating high school students lack the foundation needed to hold a good job in an age of global industry and burgeoning technology.

“We have the worst school-to-work transition of any major country,” complained former Sen. William E. Brock III, who headed a special Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, which conducted the study for the U.S. Department of Labor. The findings are based on a nationwide survey of industries and individual companies.

POINTS OF CONFLICT: But the report has stirred a hornet’s nest by proposing that schools go beyond teaching traditional skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic and begin providing instruction in five job-related “competencies"--resources, interpersonal skills, information, systems and technology.

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Someone who understands systems, for example, “knows how social, organization and technological systems work and operates effectively with them.” Students should also be able to “monitor” a system and improve its design.

Many observers dismiss such talk as meaningless gibberish.

“Anyone trying to follow the commission’s proposals would harm our students and schools,” economic analyst Robert J. Samuelson wrote in a Newsweek column. “The ‘competencies’ in Brock’s report are so vague they’re worthless. Nor can schools teach detailed job skills.”

The study, completed in June, is not without its defenders. William Kolberg, president of the National Alliance of Business, praises the document for “detailing the higher order skills” necessary to hold a job on an assembly line.

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“This report is about the kids bound for the work force,” added Bella Rosenberg of the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s not talking about narrow vocational skills but the broad basic skills in the general track.”

But many authorities complained that the report reads like a business presentation gone awry, with elaborate concepts substituted for fresh ideas. Some proposals, such as bettering “interpersonal skills,” already are incorporated in the education system, they noted.

“Cooperative learning has been all the rage in the last five years,” said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Assn. of School Administrators. In the past, he said, teachers discouraged team work. “Exchanging information with other students was considered to be cheating, but now teachers are encouraging students to work together.”

Even the report’s defenders do not give the document an “A” for clarity. Indeed, some specialists refused to comment on the report. Although they liked the idea of hearing what the business community wants from 18-year-old workers, several indicated they do not understand the document.

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Some implications of the report, depending on how they are interpreted, actually could prove harmful to students, several experts said.

DIVIDED VIEWS: The report could be viewed as proposing lower standards for high school students, one specialist said. On the other hand, another feared that it is raising goals beyond reason with radically “high standards and rigorous content.”

But the most troubling aspect of the report is that it “looks to students as workers in the work place, not as citizens in a democracy,” said Robert Hochstein of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

“They are going to be fathers and mothers, voters and (members of) juries,” Hochstein argued. “We’re shortchanging them if we do not prepare them for the much larger perspective.

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“Students don’t need a course for reading blueprints,” he said. “We need well-educated students who have a deep knowledge of the basic curriculum. If they have those fundamentals, we can train them. That’s where our energies should be.”


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