Machine Design

Schools aren't as bad as you think

Want a quick way to start an argument?

— Leland Teschler, Editor

Just ask someone what they think is wrong with public education. No question that school quality is a hot button today. It's tough to pick up a newspaper without reading about the deplorable state of schools and the kids coming out of them. If you believe what you read, our school systems are producing a generation of young adults who will be too dumb and unskilled to hold down real jobs.

The problem is thought to be particularly severe with kids who don't continue on to college. But the only difficulty with all this angst is that there is little evidence schools aren't effective at teaching basic skills.

At least that is the conclusion one can draw from studies of industrial employers and what they think of their new hires. The results suggest employers are more or less satisfied with cognitive skills their employees have gained through schooling. Interestingly, employers generally consider interpersonal skills and work habits more meaningful than school-taught knowledge. Examples come from a survey called the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality. MCSUI polled employers in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and L.A. about the skills needed in jobs handled by high-school graduates. The qualities that topped employers' lists were politeness and motivation. Half these employers also considered physical neatness and appearance important. All in all, attitude and just showing up for work regularly counted for more than specific skills.

Similar conclusions can be drawn from another study called the National Employers Survey, which asked employers about trends in job-skill demands. It found the top two qualities employers look for are attitude and communication skills. Grades, years of schooling, and even scores on preemployment tests are much farther down on the list.

Researchers have done focus groups with employers that also illuminate the issue. One report notes employers often "lapsed into embarrassed silence when asked what specific skills they wanted schools to teach their future employees."

Here's a question: If people coming out of the American education system are in such bad shape, why are foreign automakers snapping them up to work on production lines in this country? Consider the case of a Toyota plant in Kentucky, a state not known for high educational standards. Yet potential Toyota employees are screened mainly for work commitment and team skills rather than for basic cognitive skills. Similarly, the NUMMI plant run jointly by Toyota and GM in northern California has had success screening employees with just a 20-minute test in basic math. The workforce so-screened has been able to produce cars that have won numerous awards for quality. As an aside, NUMMI employees are mostly former GM workers.

And if you think complaints about school quality are something new, guess again. Here's what Mark Twain had to say on the subject in 1897: In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made school boards.

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