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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

A Civil Society Demands Education for Good Jobs

Educating students in the new basic skills is the best way to ensure their futures both as wage earners and as participants in a civil society.

  • Maintaining the status quo.
  • Educating children to participate in the "third sector" envisioned by Jeremy Rifkin (see p. 30).
  • Working to raise student skills to the levels now required in good jobs. Readers familiar with our book Teaching the New Basic Skills will not be surprised that we support the third alternative. Here we explain our reasoning.

Maintaining the Status Quo

In the 1996 political campaign, candidates frequently argued that U.S. schools had collapsed. Practitioners know this is generally untrue. Judged by standardized test scores, U.S. students are doing a little better in math and no worse in reading than U.S. students did 15 years ago. The "schools problem" exists because over these same years, skill requirements in the labor market have escalated much faster than the schools have improved.
The effect of this is apparent in the median annual earnings of 30-year-old men whose education stopped with a high school diploma: $28,000 in 1979 (in today's dollars) compared with $21,000 today. Young women with high school diplomas are earning somewhat less. Among both sexes, recent college graduates with the weakest skills aren't earning much more. These numbers send a clear signal about the need for stronger skills. But for most parents, the signal arrives only after their child has graduated—after the child has lost contact with teachers and after the parents have lost interest in supporting higher academic standards.
Maintaining the status quo means maintaining this trend: a growing gap between what students learn and what good jobs require. In essence, we will be educating about half of all students for jobs that pay less than a middle-class wage. In this event, maintaining a civil society will be virtually impossible.

Educating Students for the Third Sector

Jeremy Rifkin has outlined a very different kind of future than the one we anticipate. In Rifkin's future, automation will enable most productive work to be performed without workers. Work as we know it will be largely eliminated. We will have to define ourselves through the kinds of third-sector activities that Rifkin discusses.
Rifkin is an imaginative man, but, like all of us, he can only make educated guesses about the future. An educational leader must set priorities under two possible scenarios: Rifkin is right, and Rifkin is wrong.
Suppose schools work to increase traditional student skills (and some "soft" skills we describe below) and Rifkin proves correct. In this case, a slight mismatch may occur because students who have mastered basic mathematics and reading skills may nevertheless not be very good at third-sector activities.
But suppose schools focus exclusively on third-sector activities, largely ignoring the skills we see as critical for the high-paying jobs of the future, and Rifkin proves to be wrong. Then we will have condemned an entire generation to economic inequality beyond what the status quo is producing.
In thinking about these possibilities, keep in mind the current trend toward inequality. The trend is driven in part by rapid technological change in which the rewards of higher productivity are not distributed equally but are distributed largely by supply and demand. Even if the economy moves in the direction that Rifkin describes, there is no guarantee that people who lack the skills to compete will participate in the gains.

Preparing Students for Good Jobs

In Teaching the New Basic Skills, we show how high-wage employers are screening job applicants much more carefully than they did 20 years ago. The new basic skills that high-wage employers demand include (1) hard skills (basic mathematics, problem solving, and reading abilities much higher than what almost half of today's high school graduates attain), (2) soft skills (the ability to work in groups with persons of different backgrounds and to make effective oral and written presentations), and (3) the ability to use personal computers to carry out simple tasks, such as word processing.
Of course, many high-wage employers demand more than these new basic skills. But today none demands less.

Will There Be Enough Good Jobs?

Suppose our elementary and secondary schools make a commitment to educate children to succeed in a changing job market. Will there be enough good jobs for a larger number of graduates who have mastered the new basic skills? Why focus only on improving K–12 education? Isn't it necessary to graduate from college to get a good job?
Some argue that better schools for all is a dead end. The economy, they say, produces only a certain number of good jobs, so educating too many people too well will only drive down the wages of skilled workers. This argument has merit in the short run. In the long run, however, the economy produces jobs in growing industries as it eliminates jobs in declining industries; but only workers with the skills needed in the new good jobs—the new basic skills—will participate in the prosperity accompanying economic growth.
To understand this, contrast the consequences of technological change in agriculture over the first three quarters of this century with the consequences of recent technological changes in the economy. Farm workers who lost their jobs to mechanization experienced significant hardships. However, most of them found jobs that paid more than those they left because they could do the jobs that were becoming increasingly available in manufacturing. For example, work on automobile assembly lines was hard and dirty, but it did not require skills that farm workers lacked. As a result, most of the displaced farm workers found new jobs that allowed them to improve their standard of living along with most other Americans.
In contrast, many Americans displaced by technological change today find that they lack the skills to find good jobs in the parts of the economy that are growing. As a result, they are not participating in the fruits of economic growth. Their earnings fall further and further below the earnings of workers who possess the skills that are in demand. This is likely to continue for workers who lack the new basic skills.

College for Everyone?

While the real earnings of male high school graduates plummeted over the last 15 years, those of college graduates held steady. Some interpret this as evidence that the key to improving the earnings of the next generation of workers is to send all students to college. To see why this is an inappropriate interpretation of the evidence, consider two alternative reasons why high-wage employers have increasingly turned to college graduates and away from high school graduates. The first is that high-wage employers increasingly need the advanced skills learned in college. The second is that they need the new basic skills, and students go to college to prove to employers that they have these skills—skills that may be learned in high school but that a high school diploma does not guarantee.
To distinguish these two interpretations, consider these questions from a basic mathematics test given to high school seniors:
Directions. Each problem consists of two quantities, one in Column A and one in Column B. Compare the two quantities and circle the letter A if the quantity in Column A is greater; B if the quantity in Column B is greater; C if the two quantities are equal; or D if the size relationship cannot be determined from the information given.

A Civil Society Demands Education for Good Jobs - table

Column A

Column B

1. Length represented by 3 inches on a scale of 4 feet to an inch1. A length 12 feet
2. Q such that: 1/Q = 3/42. P such that: 1/P = 4/3
3. Cost per apple at a rate of 3 apples for $0.503. Cost per apple at a rate of $2 per dozen apples
Answering these questions requires mathematics that virtually all high school students have been taught by the 9th grade, if not earlier. Yet almost half of high school students graduate without mastery of these skills.
In writing Teaching the New Basic Skills, we analyzed two U.S. Department of Labor surveys that gave these questions (and similar questions on literacy) to high school seniors. Each survey then followed the young people over time as some went to college and others didn't. When the young people reached their mid-20s, the researchers collected information on the jobs they held and the wages they earned. One survey covered the 1970s and the other covered the 1980s—years that bracketed the rapid increase in the college earnings premium.
With our colleague John Willett, we used these surveys to analyze the growth in the college earnings premium. The results show that when wages are adjusted for the basic skills a student knew in high school, half of the growth in the men's college wage premium and all of the growth in the women's college wage premium are eliminated.
These results mean that high-wage employers increasingly hire college graduates because they want workers with the new basic skills, and many high school graduates who did not go to college lack these skills. Hiring college graduates solves the problem of finding workers with these skills, but college is a very expensive employment agency. If more high school students without basic skills mastery went to college, the earnings of college graduates would fall unless colleges invested more heavily in remedial education—an expensive proposition. But if all students left high school with the new basic skills and were able to demonstrate mastery of these skills to employers, the differential between the earnings of high school graduates and college graduates would be much smaller.

The New Basic Skills and Civil Society

Americans may find it difficult to agree on the details of a curriculum to prepare students to participate fully in a civil society. But surely a civil society must be one in which graduates of the nation's schools are able to earn enough to support children. This will happen only when all students graduate with mastery of the new basic skills. Consequently, emphasis on these skills must be at the center of education for a civil society.
The new basic skills are not only necessary for economic prosperity in a changing economy. They are also important to citizenship in a pluralistic democracy. The ability to work productively with people from different backgrounds is not only important on the job. It is also important in the voluntary activities that Jeremy Rifkin describes. This is equally true for the ability to communicate effectively, both orally and in writing. For this reason we see our definition of education for a civil society as agreeing in some respects with Rifkin's.
We disagree with Rifkin, however, about the future of the economy. Whereas he predicts a decline in earnings opportunities, we interpret current economic data—especially the highest employment-to-population ratio in the last 50 years—as evidence that there will be jobs in the foreseeable future and good jobs for workers who have mastered the new basic skills.
To see the relevance of these skills to the civil society, suppose the increasing obsolescence of the education provided in most U.S. schools is allowed to continue. The children of the wealthy and the clever will cluster in privileged schools—public and private—that do emphasize the new basic skills. These children will get a good education and good jobs. The majority of other children will compete for what is left—hardly a vision for a civil society.

Richard J. Murnane has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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