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One Education Does Not Fit All

Emerging job niches means fewer standardized jobs by Robert B. Reich

Thomas Lepuschitz, one of 49 Austrians recruited by New York City to help ease the shortage of mathematics and science teachers, told a New York Times reporter recently that he thought it strange that the state required even the slowest students to take math and science in order to graduate.

It's different in Austria. "Our school system divides people who can do certain things and people who can't," he explained. "The people who can't are not lost; it's just a slower track."

Lepuschitz has touched a raw nerve. Standardized tests—increasingly linked to grade promotion, graduation, even teachers' salaries and the tenure of principals—are the single biggest thing to have hit American education since Sputnik. Responding to the understandable demands for more accountability, almost every school in the land is morphing into a test-taking factory. Throughout his campaign for president, George W. Bush touted proposals linking federal dollars to scores on standardized tests.

There are obvious benefits. Uniform tests present clear goals and give students, parents and schools ways to measure progress toward meeting them. But standardized tests are monstrously unfair to many kids. We're creating a one-size-fits-all system that needlessly brands many young people as failures when they might thrive if offered a different education whose progress was measured differently.

Paradoxically, we're embracing standardized tests just when the new economy is eliminating standardized jobs. There's one certainty about what today's high school students will be doing a decade from now: They won't all be doing the same things, and they won't be drawing on the same body of knowledge.

Novel Niches

Jobs in the old mass-production economy came in a few standard varieties (research, production, sales, clerical, managerial, professional), but this system has fragmented. Computers, the Internet and digital commerce have exploded the old job categories into a vast array of new niches, creating a kaleidoscope of ways to make a living.

Musicians, artists, writers and performing artists are discovering multimedia outlets for their talents. Tens of thousands of people are starting their own Web-based businesses and auction houses. People who had been clerks and secretaries are turning into spreadsheet operators, desktop publishers and Web-based inventory control managers. Salespeople are becoming specialty technicians, finding or creating products to meet particular customer needs.

We're also seeing an increasing demand for people who provide personal attention and comfort. There's an upsurge in advisers, counselors, coaches and trainers. Physical and occupational therapists are needed. Home health-care workers, elder-care assistants and child-care workers are all in short supply. And we have a chronic need for teachers at all levels. Success in these jobs doesn't depend on mastery of one uniform body of knowledge as measured by standardized tests. Instead, many of them require an ability to learn on the job—to discover what needs to be known and to find and use it quickly.

Some depend on creativity—on out-of-the-box thinking, originality and flair. Others depend on the ability to listen and understand what other people are feeling and needing. Most require "soft skills" like punctuality and courtesy, although some geeks succeed wildly without even these rudiments.

Rush to Extremes

Yes, people need to be able to read, write and speak clearly. And they have to know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. But given the widening array of possibilities, there's no reason that every child must master the sciences, algebra, geometry, biology or any of the rest of the standard high school curriculum that has barely changed in half a century. Nor is it necessary that every child graduate from a high school ready to qualify for a four-year liberal arts college.

This doesn't mean that slower students should be relegated to trade schools, as they are in much of Europe. In the new economy, specialized vocational skills soon become obsolete. Besides, the whole notion of faster or slower learning is irrelevant when there are so many new options for how and what to learn.

In our headlong rush toward accountability, we seem to be veering toward two extremes—either expecting every child to pass the same test or assuming that certain children are uneducable, relegating them to a vocational track.

Our challenge is to find different measures of the various skills relevant to the jobs of the new economy. It's our job not to discourage children, but to help them find their way.

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, is professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University, P.O. Box 9110, Waltham, Mass. 02454. E-mail: reich@brandeis.edu. The author gave permission to reprint this column, which earlier appeared in The American Prospect.