The theme song of several dozen captains of industry at the recent education "summit" in Palisades, N.Y., was that American schools must do a far better job of equipping their graduates with basic academic skills. Employers are ready to provide their people with job skills, said IBM's Louis Gerstner, whose company co-hosted the gathering of governors and business leaders. "What is killing us is having to teach them to read and to compute and to communicate and to think."
This executive suite lament is not new. What's changed is that in many firms the employment office is starting to practice what the boss preaches. At Chrysler, for example, candidates for production-line jobs must pass a reading and writing test before being seriously considered. Community organizations have sprung up in Detroit to equip inner-city residents with those core skills, skills they somehow made it through school, even received a diploma, without having acquired.
Outside the education establishment, almost everyone understands that most schools in the United States aren't producing the results for which we must be able to count on them. Thus the proliferation of nonschool, out-of-school, and after-school programs (and their electronic counterparts) that strive to make up for this massive system failure. Thus the surge of remedial courses at colleges. Thus economist Lester Thurow's recent observation that future US economic progress "has to start by ratcheting up the intensity of the American high school. The performance of the average American high-school graduate simply lags far behind that found in the rest of the industrial world."
The view from the inside
Pass through the looking glass into the bizarre world of the education profession, however, and we find a very different mind-set. There we learn that US schools are doing as good a job as ever, maybe even better, and are getting a bum rap for the inadequacies of families and communities; that a right-wing conspiracy seeks to weaken public education by criticizing it; that whatever may be less than perfect in today's schools can readily be healed by the application of cash; and that surely there's no reason to disrupt hoary practices and cozy relationships by trying any of those bizarre notions such as higher standards, accountability for results, school choice, contract management, charter schools, curbing teacher tenure, or paying educators for performance. On the contrary, the latest project among establishment groups like the National PTA is a series of community meetings designed to quell such heresies and kindle more public support for today's schools.
It's a world that other people find surreal. Yet the most popular book of the year among educators - and recipient of a recent prize from the American Educational Research Association - was "The Manufactured Crisis," which contends that, far from being "at risk" from any failings of our education system, US schools are fine and the public has been hoodwinked into thinking otherwise. This volume's co-author was cheered when he addressed the American Association of School Administrators this spring.
The media's whitewash
The media often repeat this nonsense without challenge. A few months back, The Washington Post editorial page carried an essay by one of education's most dogged Panglosses, claiming that today's students know more than ever. More recently, that same paper's Outlook section featured the assertion by Stanford's Robert Calfee and Cynthia Patrick that today's education "picture looks mighty bright."
Such claims can only be made by omitting and distorting key data, such as the persistently weak-to-woeful performance of US students on international assessments (with the partial exception of elementary reading, on which no country did well) and the recent reports of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, by common agreement our soundest domestic gauge of academic achievement.
Consider, for example, the 1994 results in assessment of US history knowledge. True, history is not your basic utilitarian skill like reading, writing, and math, and we do not (yet) see automakers making it a prerequisite for blue-collar jobs. But there are a thousand good reasons - most of them centering on citizenship itself - for wanting young Americans to be historically literate.
They're not. Perhaps their parents aren't either - a rhetorical device beloved by the Pangloss crowd - but is that an excuse for the wretched performance of today's students? Among all 1994 seniors, barely 1 in 10 was "proficient" in history, according to criteria set by the National Assessment Governing Board, while more than half were "below basic," i.e., historically illiterate. This is at least as discouraging as results a decade ago when we learned from the first US history assessment that fewer than one- third of 11th graders could place the Civil War in the correct half century.
Failures in reading, math
As for skills more immediately valued by Mr. Gerstner and his peers, the latest National Assessment results show just one-third of high-school seniors reading satisfactorily - a quarter of them can scarcely read at all - and only 16 percent proficient in math.
Professor Lawrence C. Stedman of the State University of New York at Binghamton, one of the most steadfast and fair-minded analysts of such data, concludes that the evidence adds up to unimpressive results for 12 years of schooling. The tests do measure much of what is being taught in our schools and show we are not succeeding in our efforts. This is the heart of the achievement crisis. A complex, democratic society needs a well-read and knowledgeable citizenry, and yet the evidence shows we are not accomplishing this.
Why, then, is such persistent weak performance excused, justified, rationalized, or denied by so many within the education field? It's a point the summit-goers would do well to ponder - all such fractious topics were regrettably off the table at Palisades - for it goes to the heart of whether the shortcomings of today's job seekers and university applicants can ever be rectified. If the people running our schools, training their teachers, and filling their professional journals are convinced that nothing much is awry, the odds of change coming from within "the system" are slim indeed.
If we are not to watch our economic vitality and social harmony slip beneath the global waves, we'll either have to keep relying on nonschool alternatives, or the CEOs and governors will have to accompany their solemn words with more forceful actions.
* Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, member of the National Assessment Governing Board, and former assistant secretary of education, attended the recent education summit.