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We need a national effort to improve the nation's educational system.

We need a national effort to improve the nation's educational system There is a broad consensus on the need for educational reform in our nation, but there is none on how we should proceed. This lack of focus is sapping the energy of the educational reform movement, and the implications for business should be the concern of every executive.

Of 285 proposals presented in 20 recent major reports on educational reform, only nine proposals are supported by five or more of the 20 studies. More telling, more than 70 percent of the recommendations have but a single champion.

It should not surprise us that the proposals for reform are numerous, fragmented, and sometimes at apparent cross purposes. The problems don't reside in a single, readily attacked sector of our educational system. Our problems are far broader, beginning with early childhood development and continuing through on-the-job training. They are also rooted in cultural attitudes. What our leadership must attempt is a reweaving of the fabric of American life, reestablishing the links between education, work, and a private sense of purpose.

To accomplish this, those of us participating in the Task Force on Human Capital sponsored by the Business-Higher Education Forum are convinced that the entire nation must undertake a major examination of the structure of our educational system and the policies governing our educational priorities. The overriding goal is to prepare all of our young people to enter adult life with the basic education and skills they need to function in the modern world.

In this effort, we must begin with the basics. This means fostering child-development services, expanding public pre-school education, and revitalizing and redirecting elementary and high school education. In short, we must abandon the pretext that an educational system designed for the nineteenth century can prepare our people to compete worldwide in the twenty-first century. We cannot assume that the current structure can do better in the future what it is failing to do now.

Our society has to find a way to bridge the gap between the system we have and the system we need. Right now, one-fourth of the potential U.S. labor pool lacks a high school diploma, a piece of paper that in itself no longer even guarantees literacy. Some 27 million people--nearly 15 percent of the adult population--may be functionally illiterate. They cannot handle the written word well enough to read a bus schedule or safety instructions in the workplace.

What we are going to need, of course, is something far different from current educational criteria. As manufacturing technology becomes more sophisticated, for example, workers must also become more sophisticated. How successful we are in this effort will unquestionably be tied to our success in rebuilding our primary and secondary educational structure. Between now and the year 2000--for the first time in history--a majority of all new jobs will call for some form of post-secondary education.

What can we do

in the workplace?

The decline of our educational system threatens a parallel deterioration in the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce in world markets. Our competitors know this. They are marshalling their human capabilities more effectively and wrestling world markets from us. As a direct result, we now face a situation in which the standard of living and quality of life we leave to our children may be less than our parents bequeathed to us.

Moreover, we risk falling further behind in this race at the professional as well as the hourly worker level. The demand for the most highly skilled professionals in science, medicine, and engineering will double in the next decade. Equally important, without additional training, the useful "half-life" of today's engineering graduates is five years, as new theory, technology, and practice continues to restructure the fundamentals of almost every field.

For these reasons, the Business-Higher Education Forum concluded that helping American workers adapt to a changing world through training and retraining opportunities must become a second major priority.

This is an area in which universities, business, and industry can play a critical role. We can begin by looking for successful initiatives--at all educational levels--that can be applied more widely. For example, Ford employees and the United Auto Workers have created a joint training, retraining, and education program for all union workers, with branches in 20 states. KPMG Peat Marwick spends $50 million a year for professional development, and other large accounting firms also spend significant amounts. Cornell University supports a promising effort to encourage minority tenth graders to explore engineering and science careers. Carnegie-Mellon University has developed a pioneering program to improve secondary-school math instruction through self-paced computerized tutorials.

Of all the capabilities needed in the new American work force, none needs to be nurtured more than the American people's talent for inventiveness and creativity. We can achieve this by encouraging the search for and use of new knowledge. The focus should be on how to learn, how to think deeply, how to ask good questions, how to appreciate context.

Ultimate success depends on the sustained efforts of teachers, students, parents of managers and workers, business executives, and labor leaders--plus encouragement by the private sector. The Business-Higher Education Forum has committed its membership to a five-year effort to promote the implementation of the following recommendations:

* At the national level, the President should develop a broad range of responses--highly visible regional meetings, Cabinet-level task forces, or a White House Conference on Human Resources.

* Locally, every governor should aggressively promote partnerships between state and local governments and the private sector.

Other private-sector programs have also been suggested. The American Potential Standing Committee of the Business-Higher Education Forum is recommending an action agenda over the next two years that includes:

* A program for science students and their parents that will bring the discussion of science curricula and science needs into the home. We are working with the National PTA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Science Foundation.

* An annual report card on U.S. education. This would point out where educational progress is being made and where it is not.

* An ongoing corporation/university partnership. This would draw from the talents and resources of both groups to look at the issues involved in local school reform.

* An awards program to recognize one or more outstanding school programs each year.

* Corporate "culture change" and lessons for schools. This is an extension of corporations' commitment to quality in the workplace and its application to an educational environment.

* The mobilization of public opinion--an intensive public awareness campaign on the issues of effective education and its meaning for America.

The future does not take care of itself. It is not a by-product of our work, but the reason for it. Our schools must produce not merely people who can read, write, count, and show up on time, but people who have attributes too rarely discussed. Developing human talent for the twenty-first century means imbuing our people with a sense of purpose, with the adaptability to apply skills in new contexts, and with the inventiveness to put it to work. We are speaking of those human qualities that empower our people to push back boundaries and assume their responsibilities as productive members of their communities and as citizens of the nation and the world.

Despite our resources, if we cannot instill this sense of purpose, we will not solve the most serious problem we face. Too much of our human talent is being wasted, and a growing proportion of the next generation is slipping beyond the reach of the institutions and values of our society.

Mr. Horner is chairman and chief executive officer of KPMG Peat Marwick. Mr. Rhodes is president of Cornell University. They are both members of the ten-year-old Business-Higher Education Forum.
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Title Annotation:Education
Author:Rhodes, H.T.
Publication:Financial Executive
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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