For years, pundits have been citing an eighth-grade final exam from 1895 as proof that the state of education in the United States is dire indeed. It must be; after all, how many modern students can describe the importance of Monrovia or Odessa, calculate how many bushels of wheat can fit into a wagon bed, or account for the extremes of climate in Kansas?
Very few, retort 21st century educators, because thats not what our students need to know. Students knowledge may seem almost infinitely expandable, but class time is not, and hardly anyone is ignorant of the challenges public schools face today. While learning about the Magna Carta is still important, so is learning about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the role petroleum imports play in the U.S. economy. Knowing the inclination of the earth is not as important as knowing where to look it up.
That argument, valid though it is, obscures a more relevant issue: Are todays students as well prepared to enter the workforce as their counterparts were at the end of the 19th century?
Mondays Wall Street Journal reported that major U.S. employers share that concern, especially with regard to the math and science skills essential for engineering, technology, manufacturing, health care and other economic sectors that drive the nations economy. Their hiring complaints are backed by statistics that show U.S. students lagging behind their counterparts in several other large manufacturing nations.
In a survey associated with the story, a strong majority of respondents said their companies had experienced difficulty in finding the skilled workers they needed.
Science and math arent the only disciplines students need, of course. The story concentrated on higher education, but colleges build on the foundation laid by K-12 schools. Every employer has experience in wading through applications and resumes peppered with misspellings, poor grammar and responses that demonstrate insufficient reading comprehension. Some jobs still may not require literacy, but there arent many, and they dont pay well. In the work world, employees need to be able to understand written instructions and to communicate effectively in writing.
Naming the parts of speech and defining those that have no modifications, as 1895 students were required to do, may not be the best way to demonstrate language competency, but students still must develop it.
In order to become valued employees, they must also learn good work habits and social ethics. The argument that those values are the responsibility of parents rather than teachers does not negate employers complaints that too few workers possess them.
Business leaders are demanding that schools at all levels better prepare their students. They are also offering to partner with universities, community colleges and vocational institutions to help provide both the tools and the motivation to help students learn more.
That effort may not translate easily from major employers to small businesses, nor from young adults to children. At the very least, though, support (or the absence thereof) for student achievement has real-life implications in individual earning power, in the economic health of a community, and in the nations ability to compete with countries that are developing talent and technology at a very rapid pace.
Dont write off the issue as a trick question involving 1895 language. The willingness of business leaders to invest in solutions prove the problem is real and serious.