Federal Dateline

Scholars Shoot Down Chicken Little Theories

by Bruce Hunter

With apologies to Chicken Little, I want to share a significant learning experience I recently had that compared contrasting theories of how to change the direction of public education.

During a two-day workshop on “Research Evidence Related to Future Skill Demands” organized by the National Academy of Sciences, scholars and practitioners from education, business, economics and sociology detailed relevant research findings on both the demand for new skills in the American workplace and the supply of workers.

One group after another has been telling stories to Congress, claiming the sky will fall, the American economy will suffer and our quality of life will diminish dramatically if we don’t radically improve secondary schools. Chicken Little’s message has been spread by business leaders and Washington think tanks.

Many superintendents have been discontented with the performance of high schools and middle schools. Along comes the National Academy of Sciences, offering solid data from peer-reviewed research by leading scholars and sober scholarly insight. It turns out the most pre-eminent scholars on work force issues think the sky is not falling. They do not see crisis-level shortages of critical skills that might threaten our economy. They also believe the work force is not shrinking rapidly but rather growing enough to meet all projected demand for workers. Whew!

Creating Panic
So how did the panic that Asians were going to swamp our economy because of the failings of K-12 education to teach reading, math and science manage to overtake official Washington? Unfortunately, some groups here think the way to promote change is by creating crises and panic in the population. Honesty demands admitting the Chicken Little approach may well be right.

The much-quoted 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” declared: “Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” Further, the report said: “We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

However, “A Nation at Risk” was spectacularly wrong. The generation in school then or who had completed high school within a few years on either side of the report went on a productivity binge that left all other national economies in the dust over the 20 years that followed — despite our supposedly failing K-12 system.

Shift of Duty
A sober assessment by National Academy of Sciences scholars found an increasing polarization of earnings and a persistent inequality in our society based in large part on race and gender with African-American boys bearing the brunt of bias. Schools do have to change to lift students from the bottom third to acceptable levels of achievement. And it was unanimous, in the scholars’ view, that teaching to multiple-choice tests was widening the gaps in skills and school completion, not narrowing the differences.

The scholars also concluded that the decisions to pay low wages and fail to invest in worker skills were made consciously without regard for the skill requirements. According to Peter Capelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, business expects the public to produce job-ready workers rather than invest in skill development as had been done previously. That’s a major shift of responsibility from private sector to public sector that has received little attention in the debate about revamping high schools.

Further, the low value put on jobs such as child care worker and elderly care worker ignores the challenge of those jobs and the skills to perform well. Mary Gatta, director of workforce policy and research at the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University, presented data on the effects of gender on wages and the value attached to child care and elder care work and how those decisions were based on organizational decisions, not job complexity.

The scholars were unanimous in declaring no one knows how much demand for various skills will change over time. On the other hand, international demographic information is clear the United States is the least likely of all nations to have a work force shortage or surplus. Our population does not have the bulge found everywhere else, witnessed by the fact that the largest high school graduating class in our history is, yes, the class of 2007 — not some graduating class from the baby boom era.

Soft Skills
Finally, Janis Houston, vice president of research with the Personnel Decisions Research Institutes, issued the most oft-repeated observation, saying the skills most valued by corporations with whom she works are “softer skills,” such as clear oral communication, the ability to size up complex social situations, the capacity to relate to others and work on teams and complex analytical reasoning.

Houston did not downplay the need for basic skills.

In summary, more math and science is necessary, but it’s not sufficient to succeed economically. Best of all, it’s reassuring to know the sky is not falling owing to our K-12 education system. Wow, I wonder what those wild and crazy guys at the National Academy of Sciences can do for an encore.

Bruce Hunter is senior associate executive director for public policy at AASA. E-mail: bhunter@aasa.org