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Commentary : Future Hinges on Requiring Core Classes in High School

February 14, 1988|J. F. KELLY JR. | J.F. Kelly Jr. is a senior vice president and director of training and development at Great American First Savings Bank, and he is a doctoral student at the University of San Diego. and

In a recent speech, David Kearns, chairman of Xerox, placed a major part of the blame for American industry's competitive disadvantage squarely upon our schools. He recommended that every high school student--without exception--be required to master a core curriculum equivalent to college entrance requirements.

While I won't go quite that far, as a manager who trains many high school graduates, I do agree that a core curriculum of arts and sciences in secondary schools should be a condition for graduation. A high school diploma should represent a certain level of academic achievement. Today, it often signifies nothing more than survival.

As nearly everyone knows, our secondary schools are producing hordes of graduates who are functional illiterates and who have avoided mathematics and the physical sciences like the plague. At the very time when our economic and military rivals around the world were emphasizing verbal skills, math and science, our schools were de-emphasizing them. Quite predictably, underpaid and underappreciated math and science teachers left the teaching profession for higher paying jobs in industry. Today, they are in short supply.

After World War II, we were undisputed leaders of the world in technology. The label "Made in America" was a symbol of quality and our educational system was the envy of the world.

We have seen our lead in both technology and education slip away. We have abandoned one industry after another to foreign competition.

About all we produce of what we need today are food and services. Our schools produce graduates who have difficulty writing sentences, let alone putting several of them together to form a coherent paragraph. Reading and computational problems are chronic in the work force. In designing printed instructional materials, job aids or safety directions, employers who assume reading skills beyond a sixth-grade level are making a dangerous assumption.

In addition, the school dropout rate is frightfully high, in excess of 20% nationally, and much higher among blacks and Latinos. In an effort to reduce that rate, we went to great lengths to make curricula "relevant," self-centered and less rigorous. A result was a de-emphasis of the arts and sciences and college preparatory courses in general.

In our search for relevance, we often condoned studying whatever felt good. When some of these graduates discovered that such training didn't prepare them for much in the way of gainful employment, they also discovered that unemployment didn't feel good.

As so often happens, the pendulum then swung to the other extreme, and everything taught suddenly had to be job-relevant. Either approach fails to provide balanced education. The one produces graduates who are not prepared to deal with work. The latter generates students who may be ill-equiped to deal with life and with change.

There followed a number of surveys revealing that we were producing high school graduates who lacked the most fundamental understanding of how our government works and who hadn't even a fleeting acquaintance with literature and history. A 1983 commission on education produced "A Nation at Risk," an expose of the shallow content found in American school curricula. Subsequent studies validated this report.

Alarmed by these findings, reading and math competencies and various core requirements were added to high school curricula, encroaching, of course, on the time available for the softer courses including the "self-actualizing" classes. Vocational education, too, fell victim to the new mandatory reading, math and science courses and the dropout rate soared again.

Toughening the academic standards does tend to increase the dropout rate. But relaxing them is genuinely bad news for American industry, which is rapidly transitioning from manufacturing to service and which requires literate workers who can communicate and deal with people.

There will, of course, always be a need for workers and technicians who can keep our machines and appliances running, but a service economy imposes different demands on its workers. Companies that provide services usually need employees who can determine the needs and expectations of customers, and who can propose and discuss appropriate solutions. Employees need to be able to discuss technical products intelligently and to communicate their features and benefits to increasingly sophisticated customers who have choices.

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