Training up the workers

HUMAN capital, not natural resources, has become the key to economic success for a developed nation. And investment in the education of workers is sure to pay much greater return over the long run than investment in physical capital, which all too soon becomes obsolescent. This is the case John Yemma, the Monitor's business editor, makes in a series concluding today.

Concern over educational quality in the United States, an issue that has been long simmering on the back burner of public consciousness, has begun to boil over during the last couple of years. Much of the discussion has centered on the cultural and sociopolitical ramifications of these assumed educational shortcomings.

The series, however, addresses their economic aspect: specifically, the question whether US workers have the education they need to compete effectively in the new ``information age.''

With nearly one adult in five functionally illiterate (as compared with virtually universal literacy in Japan), the United States risks a disequilibrium between what individuals demand as consumers, and what they are able to provide as producers. Given the high cost of living in the US, someone trapped by illiteracy in a minimum-wage (or less) job is truly stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Fortunately, however, the invisible hand of enlightened self-interest, which 18th-century economist Adam Smith wrote of, can be discerned at work here. The American business community, concerned that it can't fill its information-oriented ``new collar'' jobs - in banking, insurance, data processing, etc. - with the products of the local schools is taking a more active role.

A good example is the Boston Compact, which guarantees those who stick out high school an entry-level job with a local employer.

But once it is agreed that ``something'' should be done, what should that something be? What approaches should be taken?

The Japanese model, with its strengths and weaknesses, has attracted much attention of late. It shouldn't be borrowed from slavishly, but one particular feature deserves attention: the notion that everyone can learn, that there is at least a basic curriculum that everyone can master, given enough support, effort, and opportunities.

In the United States, meanwhile, a high school diploma is often regarded as a certificate of attendance, and nothing more - not even a guarantee of basic reading ability.

Of course Japanese society is much different from American. But perhaps American educators have been too quick to throw up their hands and say there's no way these young people can be expected to master this or that; they're too ethnically diverse, they're too ``disadvantaged,'' they don't get support at home, and so on.

Japanese educational statistics look as good as they do not because their top students are so good but because their bottom students are as good as they are. Their ``bottom half'' is a lot closer to the top than is the case in America.

This is one aspect of the Japanese system Americans might do well to emulate. The investment in the ability of all Americans to read, write, and calculate will aid not only economic advancement but the accompanying cause of democracy.

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