Economics and Education

To achieve revolutionary results, author call for joint revamping of US schools, businesses

IN their new book "Thinking for a Living," co-authors Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker liken the United States to a slowly boiling frog.

"If you put a frog in a cup of boiling water, the frog will leap out - a bit shaken but very much alive," explains Mr. Tucker in an interview. "If you put the same frog in a pot of cold water, put it on the stove, and bring it slowly to a boil, by the time the frog senses danger he is so groggy that it's too late. Poor frog dies."

The current mismatch between the US education system and the country's economic needs - the subject of the authors' book - has occurred in the same way as the slowly boiling frog, they argue. "Things are getting slowly worse around us at a speed that lulls us to the point where we are unable at the end to make the leap out of the boiling water," Tucker says.

The boiling point for the US will come in 2010 when the baby boomers begin to retire, the authors predict.

Unless we revamp both education and industry in the next 20 years, "we will be in the most serious imaginable trouble," says Tucker, who is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Rochester, N.Y. Mr. Marshall, who was secretary of labor under President Carter, is now an economics professor at the University of Texas, Austin.

"The current shape of the American education system much more nearly reflects the demands of the 1920s economy than most Americans realize," Tucker says.

In the industrial economy of the '20s, businesses needed many low-skilled workers for mass production and only a few highly skilled, thinking workers to manage the rest. By mid-century, the demand for high-skilled workers had increased sharply. Yet the US, reveling in its success following World War II, failed to adjust to these changes.

"The needs of the American economy have changed dramatically and the shape of the American education system has hardly changed at all," Tucker says.

The problem is not one part of the educational or economic system, it is the entire system, says Tucker. So where do we start to fix it? "We have to start everywhere," he responds. "You have to change the whole system at once."

Although that may sound impossibly utopian, that's just what the US did in the early part of this century, according to Tucker. "There was an extraordinary revolution that took place in American education between 1900 and about 1925," he says. "It was almost unrecognizable at the end of that period." There's no reason why the US can't accomplish such a revolution again, Tucker says.

In a way, the US is a victim of its own success, the authors argue. "We had a claim to having one of the best national education systems in the entire world in the years between World War I and World War II," Tucker says. "But we just stood still. And the rest of the world went right by us."

Tucker sees the present as a "golden opportunity" for education and industry.

"There is a possibility of a real union between what have always been the aims of our best educators and what are now the expressed needs of our most forward-thinking business people," he says. Both educators and businesses are now looking for broadly literate, highly skilled people who can solve problems on their own.

The first step toward this goal requires setting rigorous standards, the authors argue.

Businesses need to give students incentives to study hard and take tough courses, Tucker says. "Businesses will hire anybody with a high school diploma. ... So the real message to kids is that it really doesn't matter what they learn in school."

He suggests that business and education get together to establish a "school-leaving standard" for the future.

"If business people tell kids that they are going to give preference in hiring to kids who meet that standard and preference in pay, then you will get a whole different quality of kids coming out of the schools," Tucker says.

In addition, the US needs to think globally in setting standards. Current standards compare how well US students are doing today compared to past performance.

"That's an irrelevant standard," Tucker says. "The question is how well are we doing with respect to how well we need to do? That standard is set not by us but by the rest of the world. And by that standard, we are sadly deficient."

For example, the average new hire for the assembly line in Japan's Toyota City is doing the work of a junior engineer in the United States, Tucker says. Meanwhile, American businesses are complaining that US schools aren't graduating students with the seventh- or eighth-grade reading skills needed for the majority of jobs. "Is it any wonder that Japan is beating the pants off us?" asks Tucker.

Successful revolution of the relationship between business and education requires cooperation on both sides. Marshall and Tucker call for local and national boards to coordinate education standards and labor demands. Yet, as Tucker acknowledges, "there is a very deep mistrust on both sides."

"One of our hopes for this book," Tucker says, " is that we can produce a much broader understanding on the part of both business people and educators that a new world is possible."

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