MARCH 27, 1996
For years, politicians and educators have grappled with raising the basic skill level of high school graduates. Now, another group has weighed in; American business leaders joined the nation's governors this week in a search for solutions. Following Correspondent Elizabeth Brackett's report, Charlayne Hunter-Gault discusses the summit with IBM chairman Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. and Matthew Clarke, superintendent of schools in Poughkeepsie, New York.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Starting with you, Mr. Gerstner, what is the problem with students that American schools are producing as far as businessmen and CEO's like yourself is concerned?
LOU GERSTNER, Chairman, IBM: (Palisades, NY) Well, Charlayne, thank you. It's, it's--I'm delighted to be here. We've had a very important two days. I think the problem has been documented in report after report for nearly two decades now that we are not educating the children of America to the levels that will guarantee them not just the economic future they expect but giving them the skills to be citizens in a very complex world. So this is not an issue just of job skills. This is an issue of giving our children what they need to be effective as fathers, mothers, workers, voters in all aspects of their lives.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Tell me some of the problems that you--you run a large corporation, a multinational corporation. What are some of the problems that you see specifically in your work, in your businesses?
MR. GERSTNER: Well, what we find today is that our schools for lots of reasons, and by the way, there are an awful lot of wonderful public schools in this country that produce outstanding students, but there aren't enough of them. And the vast majority of the students that come out of school today simply do not have the basic skills in subjects such as math, reading, being able to compute, communicate. The statistics you heard in the, in the brief that preceded this interview are just some of the indications that these are fundamental skills. We're not looking for the schools to teach vocational skills. I can teach engineers and other people who come to IBM how to work with machines, how to do marketing, how to do finance, but we're really not equipped to teach 'em to read and to write.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And students are coming to IBM, I mean, graduates are coming to IBM and cannot read and cannot write and cannot spell?
MR. GERSTNER: Absolutely. The very noted economist at MIT, Lester Thurow, has reported that he estimates that only 20 percent of American adults, 20 percent of American adults, have the education and skills to compete in the global economy.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Matthew Clarke, you're a superintendent of a major school there in Poughkeepsie. What do you have, 3,000 students in your, your school?
MATTHEW CLARKE, School Superintendent, Poughkeepsie, New York: (Palisades, NY) Thirty-nine hundred, Charlayne.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thirty-nine hundred.
MR. CLARKE: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is Mr. Gerstner right, that your students are coming out and going to places like IBM and can't read, write, do basic math?
MR. CLARKE: I, I would differ with him, but first I'd preface it by saying I, I would agree that there are concerns with education. But I think if we're going to target our effort and get the, the biggest bang for our effort, we have to know what it is that we want to resolve. The Sandia National Labs were asked by President Bush to produce a report on, on American education. There are some parts--and what they came up with was that American education is doing a lot better than we give it credit for, particularly when we, we begin to tease issues out, for example. We count as drop-outs in this country every youngster who does not complete school, and that includes youngsters--I'm going to give you a hypothetical case--may have stepped on to the shores of this country at the age of 16. We're the only country that does that. I've said to some people who I've spoken with that in, in my school district, which is a four and a half square mile postage stamp, we have youngsters who are, are graduating who enter our school system within the last two years, last three years. They come to us, some not speaking English, and there are some who have been in our system for a while who are not producing the way they should. What I think we need to focus on is targeted efforts at real criteria that tell us exactly or tell us and tell our customers' parents what it is that we want a youngster to do.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Mr. Gerstner is saying that--excuse me--is saying that one of the fundamental things or some of the fundamentals that youngsters need to do is to--are to be able to read and write and, and do math. Are you in agreement with him, that most of them can't do that, or a large percentage of them can't do that?
MR. CLARKE: I'm in disagreement that a large percentage can't do that. I would agree that there are some who come through the system, they do not--in my system many of them do not graduate, umm, who for whatever reason do not have those skills. Sometimes--let me give you an example of writing skills. This year, we had a writers' workshop. We had professional television people come in and work with our sixth graders. The reward for the work was to have a play produced at the Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie, would be performed by professional actors. James Earl Jones took, took a part in this. The adults in the audience were astounded at the depth and the quality of the writing. In fact, some did not want to admit to me that this was sixth grade writing. Sometimes I wonder if we are testing what we--what a youngster can actually do.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you think--
MR. CLARKE: That's a--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you think--
MR. CLARKE: I think we need standards such as a demonstration that a youngster reads a passage, can sit with a gentleman like Mr. Gerstner and, and discuss that passage, take either side of an issue on that, and demonstrate interpretation of that passage. I, I use as an example taking the standard of the "New York Times" editorial page and, and have that demonstration, have the community stamp what the youngster can do at the end of all of this training, this 12-year journey.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, Mr. Gerstner, you're listing to Mr. Clarke here. Is it that you are looking through the wrong prism here at the students and the indictment that you just made? I mean--
MR. GERSTNER: Well, first of all, I'm really delighted that Dr. Clarke feels optimistic about his school, and I suspect he's correct, and, and that's a credit to him and to the Poughkeepsie School District. I really don't know a lot about that school district. I will tell you that I believe and others believe that the evidence is that while there are great schools, we're not doing enough. I mean, one more statistic is that 60 percent of the high school graduates entering the California state college system, 60 percent, need remedial math and science.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mm-hmm.
MR. GERSTNER: And this is the top one third of the children coming out of the high schools in California. But I also agree with him that the answer lies in a set of standards that are not multiple choice tests, that are not necessarily adopted from some other economy. They need to recognize the kinds, the richness of experience that he just described in a writing experience. But we do need standards that are higher. The American people spoke in a poll last week that said they overwhelmingly believe we need to raise the standards of education in this country and to hold students and schools accountable for results.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Clarke, what do you think about that, because that was the conclusion of the conference that's taken place over the past couple of days there in Palisades, that by setting standards the schools will graduate the students with the skills that they need to succeed--do you have any problem with that?
MR. CLARKE: I don't have any problem at all with the concept. What I keep striving for is to have us as the adults in this huge nation, this community, truly articulate what they are and as Mr. Gerstner said, it's not a multiple choice test. You have to give youngsters real tasks to engage them. In New York City, there was an institution known as the school without--the City School--pardon me--and they took youngsters who were "failures" at other schools, youngsters who would work for a publishing house and have a task of translating a novel from France, let's say, and they'd have a month to learn French. The youngsters learned it because the task had meaning. Youngsters in schools in Harlem who attend a school where the mathematics is not sitting down and doing seat time in class but actually applying what they learn to the construction, the blueprinting of a house, calculating of the loads that, the bearing loads in the house. These are tasks that give meaning to education, and that's where tests miss the mark.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Gerstner, the President said today that, that what--that the basic problem is that Americans have an attitude problem about education and that that's part of the reason that all of these goals have been set and programs that have been established to try to meet those goals have failed over these past few years that they've been in effect. How do you--do you agree with that, and what do you see is the attitude problem?
MR. GERSTNER: Well, Charlayne, I, I was sitting right next to the President when he made those remarks, and I'm trying to recall exactly what he meant, but I believe when he said we had an attitude problem. He said our attitude relates to the fact that we refuse to believe that all youngsters can do well and that, therefore, we haven't raised the bar for everybody, and that we need to raise that bar and we have to admit as a country that if we set high standards and then we give people like Dr. Clarke the freedom and the resources to go meet them, that every American will have an opportunity to succeed. So I think, I think his attitudes problem was where we set the bar.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Clarke, do you think this is a good thing for businessmen, CEO's like Mr. Gerstner, to be getting involved in this whole discussion about education and helping you make decisions about how to educate the future of this country?
MR. CLARKE: Absolutely and unequivocally yes. And, and getting to the issue that you raised with Mr. Gerstner about the, the attitude issue, umm, much of the research that we need to guide us has been in existence for quite some time. Twenty years ago, Benjamin Bloom, a professor at Chicago University, laid out this issue with a concept called "mastery learning." Uh, and his--his--his conclusion was that 95 percent of the youngsters in this country can learn anything it is that we have to teach them.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, we'll have to pursue that at another time. Mr. Wright [Mr. Clarke] and Mr. Gerstner, thank you for joining us.
MR. CLARKE: Thank you.
MR. GERSTNER: Thank you.