January 30, 1997
David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Richard Murnane, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Frank Levy, professor of urban economics at MIT. They are the authors of Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally tonight, a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Richard Murnane, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Frank Levy, professor of urban economics at MIT. They are the authors of "Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children to Thrive in a Changing Economy."
DAVID GERGEN: You gentlemen are both economists, and youíve looked at the problems of education. And it seems to me you come out at a very different place with very different recommendations from what educators typically say letís begin there, what were you looking at, you were looking at skills. Frank?
FRANK LEVY, Co-Author, "Teaching the New Basic Skills:" Well, we were looking at skills and what kinds of ways these people got with different skills, and if you look at it that way, what you see is that a big mis-match has grown up over the last 15 years in the market for people who donít have good literacy and good numeracy. That market has just collapsed.
DAVID GERGEN: But the schools, themselves, have improved over the last 20 years, but the skill, the need for higher skills has increased dramatically faster than the improvements in the schools?
FRANK LEVY: Thatís right. And thatís what makes the problem so hard to diagnose. Schools today are a little better than they were 15 years ago, but the job market skills have just escalated much faster than that. I mean, we have an example in the book, "Looking At a Modern Automobile Plant," and about half of todayís high school graduates couldnít make the cut-off to be a production worker at a modern automobile plant.
DAVID GERGEN: Say it one more time. Half of the 17-year-olds--
FRANK LEVY: Half of 17-year-olds donít have the skills necessary to make the cut-off of the production worker at a modern automobile plant today.
DAVID GERGEN: That fact just jumped right off the page in your book. Now, let me ask you, Dick, what kind of skills does the high school graduate need today to qualify in the outer world, in the competitive world?
RICHARD MURNANE, Co-Author, "Teaching the New Basic Skills:" To qualify for a job that will pay a middle class wage as minimum the graduate needs to be able to read well enough to understand training manuals, basically ninth grade, able to do the mathematics thatís typically included in training manuals, fractions and decimals and line graphs, mastery of that, the ability to problem solve, to take a problem and find what will work, to shape it, to design a solution towards it, and two kinds of what we call soft skills, the ability to communicate effectively both orally and in writing, the ability to work productively with people from different backgrounds, and enough familiarity with computers to have the self-confidence and the knowledge to learn to use new software. You might say these skills are extremely modest, and they are in one sense, and there are lots of jobs that require, that pay good wages that require a lot more than these skills, but there are almost none, outside of professional sports, that do not require at least these new basic skills and also, remember, in terms of whether this is a challenge for schools to provide this, roughly half of American high school seniors are graduating without these new basic skills.
DAVID GERGEN: And if they graduate without them and never get them, theyíre condemned to live in very low wages?
RICHARD MURNANE: They can find work in most cases but these are jobs that pay six and seven dollars an hour, not enough to support children.
DAVID GERGEN: And if they can get the skills?
RICHARD MURNANE: If they can get the skills, they have a chance at acquiring middle-class jobs and have access to subsequent training when they need it. And these arenít jobs that will be jobs for--that one holds for twenty-five or thirty years. To a large extent, those jobs have disappeared from the economy, but it will be the opportunity to move from job to job and to earn enough to support kids.
DAVID GERGEN: I was interested--Frank, thereís a--thereís a notion in America today that in order to get a job in the middle class, have a ticket to the middle class, one needs a college degree. Youíre saying thatís not true, what you need is a skill, and you can get that from a good high school.
FRANK LEVY: Right. Whatís happened is we structured the situation so that we made college into a necessity. When you look at the gap in wages between college and high school graduates, you have to remember who it is thatís going to college in the first place. Itís typically the kids with the higher than average basic skills, the higher reading ability, the higher math ability. When an employer is looking for somebody with those skills, they canít rely on a high school diploma because that doesnít tell you anything, so increasingly, theyíre using a bachelorís degree to find people who they know have these skills which really could be and should be learned by the 12th grade.
DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you this. President Clinton is arguing what we ought to do is to make sure that everybody goes to at least two years of college, a junior college, and that ought to be the place where people pick up the skills. The impression I got from your book was youíre saying now what we really ought to do is ensure that K through 12 gives you that, and we donít necessarily have to rely on a community college system to get there.
FRANK LEVY: Yeah. Iíd say thatís right. Itís one thing to say if you bring K through 12 up to where it should be, people who want to go on to community college to learn specific technical skills, thatís terrific. But you donít want to use that as a substitute for doing what you should be doing in K through 12.
DAVID GERGEN: Okay.
RICHARD MURNANE: If I can just add a clarification to that, I think if a parent asked today, does my child need to go to college to earn a middle-class living, the answer is, yes, and to a large extent the reason is that employers recognize that a high school diploma does not mean master of these new basic skills. And thatís to a large extent why they go on to hire college graduates. So itís not a change an individual needs to make, but rather itís a change in the educational system so that in the future a high school diploma will mean that a graduate does have to master these new basic skills. If that happens, then the answer to a parentís question will be different.
FRANK LEVY: Parents think that U.S. schools in general are terrible, but they think their own childís school is terrific. And that gets back to what we were talking about before. The schools havenít collapsed. Thatís not what the issue is. And so when a parent visits a school, they say, well, you know, itís doing as well as the school I went to. The kid gets a little more math and gets in computers. So they think things are okay. Now the problemís going to be when the kid hits the labor market. When that happens, the kid is out of the school, and the parents have lost contact with the school. So to start the process you have to let parents understand whatís at stake. And right now that isnít the case.
DAVID GERGEN: This notion that your--thatís sort of what we call the Lake Woebegone effect, all of our schools are above average in our community.
FRANK LEVY: Absolutely.
RICHARD MURNANE: Another principle is be sure the front line workers have the training that they need. And thatís really not the case currently. If you look at professional development for classroom teachers, there are basically these one-day workshops without any follow-up, or the pay for getting a masterís degree, when most university courses donít focus on the skills these teachers need to change how they work with the students in their class. There are really needs for dramatic changes, and we give examples in our book of how professional development can be significantly better than it is, how it can change in a way that does provide opportunities for children to learn these new basic skills, soft as well as hard skills.
DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you this question. I was really interested in the fact that so much of the debate in the country is over other issues like school choice, whether we should put more money in the schools, schools-based management, that sort of thing. Youíre arguing those are not panaceas; what we ought to be focusing on is the skills.
FRANK LEVY: Well, yes. I think any of those proposals that you talk about, choice or charter schools, are ways of shaking up the system, but then the question comes: what happens after that; in what way does the system move? And what weíre arguing in the book is that everybody has to understand what kinds of skills that kids need, that you have to provide the teacher retraining, all the scut work that comes after you shake up the system; thereís no way of avoiding that. And so you donít want to sell these things as magic bullets. Theyíre the beginning of the process maybe, but they sure are not the whole process.
DAVID GERGEN: A final question. What advice would you have to a parent or to a teacher or to someone out in the local community whoís looking at their schools? They think their schools are above average, but they want to check it out. What should they do?
RICHARD MURNANE: One obvious thing they can do is to look at the kids who graduated two years ago from that school and say, what are those kids doing, because the most likely outcome is that their kids will be doing the same thing, so if the outcomes for their--for the kids who graduated two years ago are not satisfactory for their child, they need to worry about the quality of education that child is surviving in.
DAVID GERGEN: So the parent should ask for an audit of the students who graduated two years ago or three years ago to see where they are in life, even if they came out of the eighth grade, where are they in the tenth grade, if they came in the twelfth grade, where are they two years later?
FRANK LEVY: Thatís right. Thatís right.
DAVID GERGEN: Thank you very much.