BOSTON — `TOO many kids, whether they have a diploma or not, just aren't up to the standard that business needs,'' insists Robert Kolberg, president of the National Alliance for Business (NAB). Now, business finds itself being increasingly involved by educators in narrowing the skills gap. Businesses have been surveyed to see what skills their employees need. Some new hires are coming to them with diploma guarantees. And some businesses are being shown students' transcripts, attendance records, and even academic portfolios.
One of the earliest and most intensive survey efforts was the Colorado Department of Education's 1983 survey of 250 businesses. Two-thirds said new employees had problems doing basic writing tasks. More than 40 percent reported trouble in basic communications and math. From this, educators developed a list of 120 competencies for students to master. Oregon and Michigan have taken similar surveys.
Colorado also has 10 districts that guarantee diplomas. Forty others are expected to adopt the program this winter.
Montrose is one of the few Colorado towns in which newly employed graduates have come back for the promised help. Schools Supt. Robert Cito explains that a key problem is inadequate speed and comprehension. Many who sign up for the armed forces have been unable to finish preliminary, timed tests. New employees at nursing homes have been similarly challenged in trying to read and calculate in such chores as mixing cleaning solutions, says Mr. Cito. That graduates can immediately apply what they learn in the retraining increases motivation and effectiveness, he says.
In Massachusetts' Plymouth-Carver district, the diploma guarantee takes effect with next spring's graduates. Supt. Bernard Sidman says he hopes it will inspire younger students to work harder. ``Knowing that an employer could demand that they bone up on their skills, maybe they'll pay a little more attention while fully enrolled.''
Dr. Robert Willis, superintendent of the Rock Island-Milan schools in Illinois, says the program lets former students and the community know that ``we're always here for them.''
``Obviously the program has some community relations value - we wouldn't minimize that,'' says Tom Brodie, coordinator of elementary and secondary school programs in Wayzata, Minn., a district near Minneapolis which adopted the diploma guarantee two years ago. ``But I think it says to the business community, `we have the same concern for quality that you do and we're willing to work with you on it.'''
Yet the guarantee is only a half step, says Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In his view, it is ``madness'' to guarantee an often-absent graduate with a ``D'' average.
``We have a very tolerant school system,'' he says. ``High school students can get a diploma pretty much by warming a seat... What's important is the student's track record. We need to improve the process by which employers look at the record and determine who's employable or not.''
The best evidence, educators admit, is not the diploma but the academic transcript. Some graduates now also carry portfolios of their schoolwork. Vermont is trying to encourage each student to develop one. Yet few employers ask to see transcripts or portfolios. ``Typically they haven't gone beyond the diploma,'' admits NAB president Kolberg. ``They ought to be asking for transcripts, insisting that high school work matters.''
IBM executive Robert Gholson agrees that employer interest in school performance could make a difference. ``If we don't want kids to drop out of school, then we shouldn't hire dropouts.''
Transcripts are usually attached to r'esum'es in Western Europe and Japan. The now defunct Commission on Work Force Quality and Labor Market Efficiency - a bipartisan group set up by the Secretary of Labor to study such comparisons - urged the use of transcripts in the hiring process.
In the southwestern Colorado community of Pagosa Springs, high school officials have taken the unusual step for the last five years of attaching a microfiche transcript to each student's diploma. Principal Ron Shaw says employers in the community are starting to make good use of the offering. ``It's a chance to make students accountable for what they do,'' he says.
Many businesses are eager to play a much more active role in the schools. ``Business and the schools need to develop a closer, trusting relationship, to break down the barriers,'' says Mr. Kolberg. ``If we're going to be successful, we need to do this job of school-to-work transition together.''