Education today

Voice Card  -  Volume 26  -  Larry Card Number 5  -  Sun, Nov 22, 1992 9:40 PM

Public education has been kind of a whipping boy for politicians and others recently. For a fresh perspective on many of the much-discussed problems of education, I would like to share the text of the following speech given at our county's annual school boards' association dinner in late October of this year. The author is a former writer for the San Jose Business Journal, and curently wites for another paper in the Bay area.

It's a little long but I think it's rather interesting.

Speech by Jonathan Weisman, Santa Clara County School Boards Association Dinner, San Jose, CA - October, 1992

I feel like I have entered the lion's den here at Hewlett Packard. I understand there are some H-Per's in the audience tonight, and some of what I'm about to say might be a bit jarring. We've all heard about the nobility of Hewlett-Packard's corporate philosophy, and it was H-P's eminent CEO, John Young, who once said "The quality of the education we provide for (our children) today will inevitably determine our nation's future standard of living (and) our competitive strength." It's a noble sentiment, but let's not take that too far. Noble, but kind and gentle it is not. On the contrary, it is a dangerous sentiment, I think, and it is wrong.

It has become fashionable for the nation's CEO's to make lofty speeches about our school system and its failure to provide an educated workforce capable of sustaining America's competitiveness. John Young is not alone by any means. Across 280, Apple's chief executive, John Sculley, offered, "Nothing will divide this nation more than ignorance, and nothing can pull us together better than an educated workforce." Is he giving that workforce a chance? Well, last month, Mr. Sculley approved the closing of his factory across the bay in Fremont. Many of those jobs will now be filled by workers in Singapore, whom I suppose Mr. Sculley would like to pass off as far more educated than those in the Bay Area.

You see, education has become a convenient scape goat... a scape goat for business's faltering competitiveness, a scape goat for a decade of mismanagement, and a scape goat for the continuing refusal of corporations to reorganize around a highwage, high-skills workplace model and to provide good on-site worker training to assure that model's success. Education is not the reason for our economic decline. It is the excuse. The nation's got economic problems? Blame it on the schools. Our cars aren't as good as Japan's? Blame it on the workers, and the schools that just couldn't train them.

And I ask you gathered here tonight, who has fallen for this reasoning, hook, line, and sinker? You all have. You, the educators. You, the reformers. You who have seen the very real problems our schools, who know there must be change, and who are sure you need the support of the John Sculley's and John Young's of the world if our schools are to improve. But in embracing their support, you have embraced a vision of schools as merely weigh stations for the nation's economy. You have lost sight of why the American public education system was created: to sustain the world's greatest democracy with an intelligent, curious, and questioning electorate willing to stand up for its rights.

Vocational education masquerading as civics won't get us there. And, I might add, without corporate investment in onsight training, without workplace reorganization, without more federally sponsored research in civilian technologies, and without government investment in our crumbling infrastructure, including our school houses, your mightiest efforts in the schools you govern will not return America to world-class competitiveness. I'll tell you why.

There are three fundamental premises in business's concern about education and its indictment of our schools. They are: (1) that the nation's job needs are becoming increasingly high-skilled, (2) that poorly educated workers filling these highskilled jobs are unable to compete with better educated workers in Japan and Germany, and (3) that business is spending billions on basic skills training, and cannot be expected to do more. Workforce preparation must be up to the schools.

All three are wrong.

Let's first look at business's premise that the nation's job needs are becoming increasingly high-skilled. Three researchers from Stanford recently spent months observing workers right here, in the high-technology world of Silicon Valley. They visited computer and telecommunication companies billed as "the vanguard of the new, competitive American firm," businesses who are competing with the Japanese and Germans, and are winning. Did they find these high-skilled jobs we have heard so much about? No, they found the same old mundane jobs of yore with some fancy equipment and some new buttons to punch. "We did not observe any skill requirement that could not be achieved with a solid eighth grade education," the Stanford study concluded.

In fact, the Economic Policy Institute in Washington has discovered that the upgrading of skills required at work will necessitate a total of .04 extra years of schooling over the next ten years. That's about 7 days. One and a half extra days a year should do the trick nicely, a do-able prescription, I would think. See, now aren't you all feeling better already?

You know, we hear over and over again that students must attain higher skills because lower skilled jobs are disappearing. And I'm not denying that. It's at least half true. Low-skilled jobs are disappearing. Wages for unskilled workers have fallen dramatically over the past decade, by as much as 25 percent for workers with no college education. A lot of the jobs those Stanford researchers studied just two years ago are now in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. Those brawny guys without the brains just aren't needed anymore. But let's not kid ourselves. For every loading dock job lost, do you really believe a computer programmer's job is created? For every assemblyline position shipped to Singapore, is a new slot opened at Apple for yet another vice president of marketing?

Business is fond of answering that question these days with an honest "No." But they add, "Of course we can't create a new vice president's slot. We'd love to, but with these lousy schools, there'd be no one to fill the position!" It's the same old supply-side theory we've been hearing for 12 years. "You give us the supply and the demand will create itself." The supply, in this case, is educated workers. The demand comes in the form of unfilled, high-skilled jobs waiting for them.

And there's no more evidence that this supply-side scenario will work than there was for the last scenario. That was in the early 80's when we cut taxes to prime the money supply and raise economic demand. Remember that? We were told, a robust economy with lower taxes would actually generate more money for the government to fund all those submarines and Star Wars projects, and maybe even some education programs. What did we get? A 4 trillion dollar debt.

If we were to magically create a supply of exceptionally highskilled workers, we could wind up with malcontented Ph.D's driving taxis... if they're lucky. Today's white-collar unemployment lines in the county building are eloquent enough rebuttals of this supply side lunacy. Think of it this way. If there really was a terrible shortage of skilled laborers out there, employers would be scrambling to snatch up the few around. This competition would bid up their value, and thus their wages. Is this happening? On the contrary. Wages of college graduates actually fell 3.1 percent between 1987 and 1991.

The Department of Labor recently reported that one-fifth of recent university graduates were stuck in jobs that were not using the skills they attained in college. One in every five adults who have recently earned a college degree, who heeded society's call for a higher skilled, better educated workforce, are stuck doing tasks they could have easily accomplished with their reputedly lousy high school educations. Is this a sign of an economy crying out for higher skilled workers? No, it's a sign that all those students who answered business's call for more education now need business to give them a decent job.

Now about that notion that American workers just can't compete with their better-educated counterparts overseas.... Again, we needn't look too far to debunk it. We've got the good news right in our back yard, Fremont. About ten years ago, General Motors shut down its plant there, declaring the workforce was so bad that the factory just couldn't compete. A few months later, Toyota approached GM, offering a deal. "You give us your plant and your workers, and we'll run the show." They rehired 80 percent of those miserable laborers, retrained them to work in teams and take more responsibility, and now that factory, the New United Motors Manufacturing plant, is GM's most productive.

Fact: A 1990 study done by UC Berkeley found many workers at NUMMI could neither read nor write English. Yet they were exceptionally productive. What the Japanese management needed from them was good interpersonal skills, not good calculus. In other words, they needed to be friendly. They needed to work well in teams. They needed skills that fall far more in the purview of society at large than our nation's schools.

An isolated example?

Honda is now exporting cars made in the U.S.A. to Japan. GM's Saturn plant has been a raging success, using workers from the deep South, a part of this country not noted for its fine education system. American workers can compete, given good management, job security that fosters comraderie, not antagonism, ...and thorough, relevant on-site training.

Which leads us to the third notion. That business is spending billions on training, all it can, and now it's the schools' turn to help our workers. Business is spending billions a year, $30 billion to be exact. But of that, $27 billion comes from the big guys, the IBM's and Xerox's who represent about one half of one percent of American businesses. And most of those training dollars are targeted not at those poorly educated workers but at executives and managers, many times in places like Aspen, or Cabo San Lucas or Waikiki.

Training is crucial. It's the very foundation of Japan's corporate success. But not the Waikiki kind. I'm talking about on-site training focusing on real-life work situations and paid for by the corporations themselves. French businesses designate 1 and 1/2 percent of their payroll to training and school-to-work transition programs. If they don't want to provide those programs themselves, they pay the equivalent into a national training pot.

The German economic machine relies on its vaunted apprenticeship system, funded in large part by mandatory payroll taxes levied on the German private sector. Two-thirds of Germans between the ages of 16 and 19 enter the workforce through apprenticeships. The number of Americans that pass through viable apprenticeship programs number about 300,000 a year. German business knows how foolish and inefficient it would be to rely on the public schools to teach students how to construct a BMW. Their American counterparts may know it too, but they just don't want to pay the price. They'd rather leave it to the schools.

Then to make matters worse, they don't even want to help the schools. Business philanthropy has increased, and corporations are sponsoring some wonderful programs. But those efforts are more than offset by a growing unwillingness of businesses simply to pay their taxes. Instead, they wrangle for tax breaks from local and state governments, threatening to pack up and go if their tax load isn't cut, or forcing local governments into tax-break bidding wars by saying, "maybe we'll put a plant in California, or maybe we'll put it in Kentucky. We'll have to see which one has the best business climate, i.e.-the lowest taxes." The result? The corporate share of local property-tax revenue has dropped from 45 percent in 1957 to about 16 percent in 1987. And I don't have to tell school board members the significance of property taxes.

Now I do not mean to dismiss business's significant new interest in education. Not at all. Corporate America was able to put education reform on the national agenda because of its clout, clout that educators and school board members like yourselves regrettably don't have. Business is the new muscle in the education-reform movement. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander consulted business leaders before educators when he was drafting President Bush's America 2000 education package. Alexander's high-profile deputy, David Kearns, is the former chairman of Xerox. His undersecretary for education management is Donald Laidlaw, an IBM executive. On the president's Education Policy Advisory Council, there are 8 business leaders. Its chairman is the CEO of Alcoa, Paul O'Neill.

And I don't mean to imply this muscle is bad. After all, when business leaders argue eloquently on Capital Hill for full funding of Head Start and increased funding of Chapter 1, Congress listens, at least more than they do to Al Shanker or Keith Geiger. In 1984, 17 percent of the nation's schools had entered into some kind of partnership with business. Today, its 40 percent and growing, over 140,000 active programs. In Santa Clara County, IBM, Apple, and Tandem have taken the lead in these partnerships, and they have constructively offered to help out in an area of their true expertise, math and science.

We should and do applaud these efforts. But educators and policymakers like yourselves must tell business that a true partnership involves internal change and sacrifice by both sides. Business must do its part too, not just in helping education change but in changing itself. And in the broader, education-reform debate, the educators must take back much of the control. It's time to reroute the education-reform track away from economic arguments and toward democratic ones. I said earlier that linking American competitiveness to educational improvement was dangerous. It is. The economic pretext for reform has misguided and confused the reformers. Now people have decided the entire system must change. A new, high-skills economy needs a totally overhauled education system, they say.

The idea of such a bold overhaul is nice. It's dramatic. But there isn't the political will or the money to do it. So we do a study here, a study there. We set up a model school but can't spread the model because of insufficient funds. In Washington, they talk about "breaking the mold" but they're just breaking their heads. We're gridlocked. Why? Because while we look in horror at a future with wonderful jobs and no one to fill them, we forget the basic problems facing our schools and nation today.

Let's look at the debate from the democratic principle instead. Remember that Stanford study of Silicon Valley wage jobs? The study said the bulk of them required no more than an 8th grade education. It also went on to say that some Americans, the bottom third, mostly the urban and rural poor, aren't even getting that. We do have students who cannot function in a modern economy. They're crowded into classrooms with 40 other students, in schools literally crumbling on their heads. In New York City, there is a windowless, cavernous school, P.S. 261, jerry-rigged inside an abandoned roller-skating rink. Teachers and students shout over the echoes reverberating through rooms separated by make-shift, half-high walls. In North Lawndale, Chicago, only 170 of 800 freshmen will graduate with their class.

Back in New York, the city spends $5,500 for each public school student, many of whom need special remedial or bilingual help. In Great Neck, Long Island, where special education costs are actually much lower, the same student would receive more than $11,000, twice as much. And right here, in Santa Clara County, California, with its vaunted funding equalization formula, it isn't much better. Last year, class sizes in the Lakeside Joint School District in and around Los Gatos averaged 22.3 students. In San Jose, that number was almost a third higher, 30. Lakeside's per pupil spending was $5,372. In the Cambrian School District in West San Jose, it was $3,581.

That is not democratic. Those children did not ask to be born who and where they were. Put politics aside. Put business and economics aside for one moment and remember, these are children we're talking about, our responsibility. They are not our future. We are their future. And we control their present. Our political gridlock is their misfortune.

My wife, who's a Third World economist, says a nation's transition from an underdeveloped economy to a developed one is more philosophic than economic. It comes when a society collectively decides that its adults exist to serve their children. A primitive, impoverished society views children as servants for the adults. This is why that phrase, "Our children are our future" strikes me as troublesome and self-serving.

So with that in mind, let's forget overhauling the entire education system. The work that needs to be done right now must focus on the children, especially those who really are not being prepared to be productive members of society, and, let me add, who just aren't being given a decent life in the here-and-now. There are wonderful ideas out there, ideas like year-round education, putting social welfare programs into the schools where kids can get to them, raising parental involvement, giving principals and teachers more control over their curriculum and administration. Instituting national tests with state-by-state comparisons, and yes, giving parents more choice in where to send their children to school. They all have their merits. They all have their detractors.

But there are two simple changes that have been proven effective time and time again. Reducing class sizes with more teachers or teachers aids, and attracting better teachers with better pay. Earl Solomon, a history teacher in East St. Louis with 30 years experience, earns $38,000 a year, not too bad I suppose, a lot better than me, I'll confess. But if he went across the river to suburban St. Louis, the trip would be worth nearly $10,000 a year in wages. If he went north to suburban Chicago, his salary would jump from $38,000 to about $60,000.

Now I mean no offense to Earl Solomon. He may be a dedicated, excellent teacher. But I ask you, where would you go if you knew you were good, if you had a fresh degree from Stanford and a choice of salaries? My point is, let's stick to the basics - equality, raising up the education of that bottom third. People say funding equalization levels down education quality. It does if we're not willing to put more money into the pot. It hurts. It hurts my wallet, and it hurts yours. But it must be done. We're their future.

And to the business men and women in the audience, I do not mean to denigrate your efforts, nor do I mean to say you have no place in the education reform movement. But your primary mission is to get your own house in order, to look at NUMMI in Fremont, or Saturn in Tennessee, or the new Intel plant going up in Santa Clara. How about that? Intel suddenly decided that it could build a manufacturing facility right here in the Valley. Sure, they may have to train their workers, but I suppose they realize it's be pretty silly to wait for our high schools to start teaching "Semiconductor Making 101."

We certainly do need your help. We need your help funding and administering good school-to-work transition programs, good onsite, work-relevant training, good apprenticeships and internships. We need you to raise the skill-levels required by your jobs and raise the pay along with them. It's not going to happen by itself. You have proven you can down-skill those jobs, automate them, compress sophisticated processes into the punch of a button or the twist of a nob. And once you do that, you tend to ship that job overseas, where labor is cheap. So most of all, society needs you to keep your jobs here, in the U.S.

And educators, please, I'm not saying there's no need to improve our schools. In 1980, almost 70 percent of American adults tried to read a newspaper every day. Today, that number has steadily declined to just over 60 percent, and have you seen some of those newspapers we're reading? I won't show you the one I write for.

Only half the eligible voters of this country voted in 1988, and just over half of those voted for George Bush. That means our president's mandate came from 25 percent of this country. If there is any statistic that points to the problems in our school system, it is that one, not the trade deficit, not the index of leading economic indicators.

The American experience has shown how truly democratic institutions can be maintained through an informed citizenry. And the United States has demonstrated that the ability to think, organize, and remain informed can lead a people to a more just society, a society that they control. The work world is different. Autocratic, top-down management has worked and still does. Businesses can adjust to the various skill-levels of their workers, and they do, by automation and often by lowering wages. Because Johnny can't read, McDonald's pays him minimum wage and puts a picture of a hamburger on the cash register for him to punch. Such a solution at the ballot box is not so easy.

Thank you very much.