HOW TO SMARTEN UP THE SCHOOLS Will the education crisis torpedo U.S. economic preeminence? Business leaders, stuck with undereducated workers, fear it might. But new reforms can save the day.
By Myron Magnet

(FORTUNE Magazine) – SO IGNORANT and benighted are many young recruits to the U.S. work force that ) one executive after another has recoiled in horror, gasping with astonishment. These are the troops we're supposed to win the global competition with? How can such a work force dominate the knowledge-intensive industries where the future will be made? What use are modern management techniques that draw on the worker's talents and initiative when he has no dogged, practical Yankee ingenuity to tap? And if two of every five new jobs that the Labor Department expects to be created by the turn of the century will call for more than basic skills, where will the ten million qualified workers come from to fill them? Presumably not all from Hong Kong. Little wonder that many executives are joining the education reform movement sweeping America. They fear that if we can't count on public schools to produce workers who can read, think, calculate, and communicate, we can kiss our economic preeminence goodbye. The failure of U.S. public education from kindergarten through high school is vast and ominous. Its most notorious measure is the plunge in College Board test performance. Combined scores on the verbal and math exams fell almost yearly from 980 points out of a possible 1600 in 1963 to a nadir of 890 in 1980, before gradually recovering to 906 by 1986. On another series of national tests, science performance of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds worsened steadily from 1970 to 1982, the last year for which data are available. Math performance by 17-year-olds has also deteriorated. Comparison with other nations disheartens. U.S. eighth-graders on an international math test in 1982 answered an average of only 46% of the questions correctly, compared with top-scoring Japan's 64%. The American kids couldn't even top the average score (52%) for the 11 competing nations. Worse, the top 5% of the U.S. 12th-graders who took international calculus and algebra tests in 1982 came in dead last among the top 12th-graders of nine developed countries, squelched not only by first-ranked Japan but also by Finland, New Zealand, Hungary, and others. That 5% is the creme de la creme, since few enough U.S. high school seniors take advanced math at all. Contends University of Illinois education professor Herbert J. Walberg: ''People often say that our best and brightest can compare with Japan's best and brightest -- who only memorize. But it's simply not true.'' How literate are American students -- not in the sense of being able to declaim Shakespeare or write like George Will, but rather being able to * understand an instruction manual or compose a comprehensible memo for the suggestion box? A congressionally mandated study found in 1984 that fewer than a fifth of approximately 2,000 11th-graders could adequately write a note applying for a summer job at a swimming pool. The average 11th-grader, who only just made it into the realm of meaningful discourse, couldn't do a wide range of writing tasks well enough to ensure he would be understood.

Not surprisingly, average young adults are weak readers and reasoners too -- but the scope of what they can't do takes your breath away. Of 23,000 young adults who took a simple qualifying exam for entry-level jobs at New York Telephone, 84% flunked. A government-sponsored study estimated that only 37% of the 21- to 25-year-olds tested could be counted on to comprehend material as complex as a New York Times article on the downing of KAL Flight 007. Just 38% could dependably carry out such tasks as using a chart to pick the right grade of sandpaper or figuring their change from $3 if they had a 60-cent cup of soup and a $1.95 sandwich. Don't expect more than one young adult in five to read a schedule well enough to say when a bus will reach the terminal. Reform leaders -- executives, governors, educators, and Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and his staff -- are worried not just because many young Americans lack the basic skills needed to build quality cars or even run cash registers. Many new graduates also lack a solid core of the knowledge that makes America work as a country, that common culture that turns a pluralistic hodgepodge into a unified nation without depriving anyone of his distinctive identity. They lack that modicum of political judgment, based on at least a smattering of history, that makes democracy authentic and not a masquerade. Missing too is the historical and literary knowledge that shows the vastness and variety of human aspiration and achievement, strengthening character and values and enlarging one's sense of the possibilities and worth of one's life. HOW MUCH is missing grows dismayingly clear from a recent influential book, What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? by assistant secretary of education Chester E. Finn Jr. and Columbia Teachers College professor Diane Ravitch. Based on tests of a representative national sample of 8,000 17-year-olds, the book reports that fewer than a third of these high school seniors knew in which half- century the Civil War occurred, or what the Magna Carta is or the Reformation was, or that the Declaration of Independence is the document that marked the separation of the colonies from Britain, or that Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. A third of them -- this is not a joke -- didn't know that Columbus discovered America before 1750 or what Brown v. Board of Education was about. A third couldn't recognize the best-known passage from either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Just over half knew that Stalin led Russia in World War II and -- wait for it -- that Russia did not invade Israel during that conflict. Literature questions uncovered a vaster wasteland of ignorance. For these kids, the modern novel is deader than Marley's ghost: Fewer than one 17-year- old scholar in five could match Dostoevski or Conrad or James Joyce with appropriate book titles, and Hemingway and D. H. Lawrence fared little better. Since each question carried four possible answers -- and ''I don't know'' was not among them -- this is a worse result than random guessing would produce and suggests an almost militant ignorance. Fewer than half the students knew that Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth were poets. More happily, the average student scored 68% on the Shakespeare questions and 67% on the Bible ones -- poor enough, but passing grades compared with a flunking average for the tests as a whole. As for the Greek myths also central to our cultural heritage, just over half the students knew who Oedipus was or what an Achilles' heel is. Fewer than half could identify Don Quixote or the main theme of Walden or the author of a well-worn pair of Poor Richard's maxims. How did America come to commit ''unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament,'' as the Department of Education's attention-grabbing Nation at Risk report termed it? To begin, blame that tattered orthodoxy, ''progressive'' education. Repeatedly discredited, it nevertheless doesn't die, thanks primarily to the schools of education that are its life-support apparatus. Whatever freshness might once have sparkled in its child-centered approach, its commitment to social utility and ''effective living,'' its rejection of the tyrannies of facts and memorization, of pressure and competitiveness, that freshness has long since turned to stone. Just one example of the aridity: the ''expanding environments'' social studies curriculum most schools use from kindergarten through the third grade. Proceeding like those addresses young children write that move from ''Mary Jones, Elm Street'' to ''U.S.A., the Earth, the Universe,'' this program starts with the child as a family member and moves through his membership in a school, neighborhood, community, even (inevitably) a global community. The four-year sequence, says education professor Ravitch, ''is virtually content- free.'' For children living at the end of the 20th century -- viewers of TV news, observers of modern life, some even visitors to outer space via Star Wars or E.T. on the VCR -- the triviality of this curriculum anesthetizes the mind. ''You belong to a family,'' explains a popular, representatively vacuous first-grade text analyzed by University of Georgia education professors A. Guy Larkins and Michael L. Hawkins. ''Some families have two parents . . . Families do things together.'' Ditto for families in Canada, England, and Japan -- the global approach, you see, based on the belief that if we all stress the many things we have in common instead of our supposedly unimportant differences and conflicts, there would be no wars. Other equally empty textbooks add that children have birthdays, birthdays are fun, and American Indians and Chinese people have them too. Third-graders -- these are 8-year-olds -- soporifically discover that ''all communities have homes . . . buildings where people work, play, learn, and worship . . . parks where people go to have fun . . . stores where people shop . . . roads.'' All four grades learn how milk gets from the cow to the kitchen, each time with the same numbing simple-mindedness. When Benjamin Franklin appears in one book, it is as a Philadelphia post-office improver and college and library founder. Children aren't told he was a diplomat and nation builder, community roles evidently too heady and interesting for the environment expanders who compiled this text. Obvious, superficial, and unfailingly boring, the Georgia professors judge, these wan texts utterly displaced red-blooded fare that put muscle on children's minds and imaginations -- Greek myths, Robinson Crusoe, stories of national heroes like Washington and Lincoln, of Pilgrims, Indians, and pioneers, of heroes of legend and history from Moses and Ulysses to King Arthur and Joan of Arc. Says Diane Ravitch of this older curriculum: ''Children enjoy it. They learn painlessly when their lively minds and their sense of romance and adventure are engaged.'' And they learn something other than that school is dumb. The progressive preference for utility and ''effective living'' over the ^ inspiring and instructive richness of our cultural heritage works its way all through the curriculum and powerfully shapes what high-schoolers learn, or don't learn. These days cooking and driving courses count as much toward a high school diploma as English, history, or science courses. While it's fine to teach kids to cook and drive, 13 states let high-schoolers earn at least half their graduation credits from electives like these or like Bachelor Living, where presumably they can learn condom etiquette and that communities have singles bars. Though progressive education has been doing its work for more than 60 years, it took the upheavals of the Sixties and early Seventies to exaggerate all its tendencies and hasten the evacuation of learning from the schools. A revealing case in point: the trivialization of American history textbooks. While schoolbook publishers are used to dancing tactfully among the sometimes contradictory demands of text-buying authorities wedded to fundamentalism or secular humanism or the free market, the contentions of the Sixties overwhelmed their suavity. That became clear in a report of an expert panel sponsored by the New York-based Educational Excellence Network. With blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, other ethnic groups, feminists, homosexuals, and nuclear disarmers all clamoring for due mention of the dignity of their accomplishment or injustice of their suffering, history books have resorted to what the report calls ''a kind of textual affirmative action.'' This often crowds out the more important parts of the story and turns texts into dead catalogues of disjointed facts or ''distort((s)) in order to mention and appease.'' In the pictures in one leading high school text, the report says, ''Texas cowboys, World War I soldiers, and Civilian Conservation Corps surveyors are represented ((only)) by blacks. In its index, Women's Rights is a longer entry than the Revolutionary War.'' Since such texts must not offend interest groups, you can guess how forceful the writing is. Deadly too is that the committees that write these books prefer thinking sociologically about communities and social classes rather than thinking in the traditional historical terms of stories filled with passion and conflict and peopled by vivid characters whose bold or devious or wise actions change the world. So much for drama. Since the texts mustn't use too difficult a vocabulary or carry too heavy a ''concept load,'' they end up even more vapid and colorless. Progressive education has always tried to replace teacher authoritarianism with teacher-pupil cooperation. But the Sixties' shakeup of education reduced the distance between teacher and pupil so drastically that it fatally subverted teacher authority. Teachers lost confidence that they really knew what pupils should learn, even that they as teachers had something worth teaching. Popular songs might well contain as much wisdom and poetry as Melville, went the cant of the day, and spontaneity might be more valuable than knowledge. At the college level, where this tendency was most pronounced, the consequence was a reduction in course requirements and admission requirements. High schools in turn reduced graduation requirements, figuring that if colleges didn't require applicants to know foreign languages or sciences for admission, maybe they weren't important. Trivial electives and texts crowded out solid fare in the name of a specious relevance, so that today, 20 years later, students read a biography of onetime teen tennis player Tracy Austin, say, instead of the life of Marie Curie or Pocahontas. Required homework went the way of required courses. The proportion of high school seniors who did at least five hours a week declined 30% between 1972 and 1980. Says assistant education secretary Finn: ''Kids tend to learn that which they study, and to learn it in proportion to the amount of study they do -- and up to the level they are obliged to learn it to by the adults in their lives.'' Not only does less homework produce less learning, but it also fails to instill the work ethic that the U.S. economy needs. Even as teachers were demanding less from students in every way, they were inflating grades, further eroding the incentive to work hard. Such authority as the schools left themselves the courts helped take away. Principals cannot suspend pupils without a formal hearing, the Supreme Court ruled in 1975, invoking the 14th Amendment's due-process guarantee and thereby turning school discipline from an extension of parental discipline into a quasi-adversarial proceeding on the legal model. Weeks later the Court subverted school order further by ruling that pupils could sue individual teachers and principals for damages for infringing their civil rights. How much do you want to discipline a troublemaker who can make a federal case of it? The Court broadly impaired learning with the forced busing that followed its 1971 Swann ruling. Views differ on whether busing is sound social policy, but it is hard to disagree that its educational costs have been high. In many districts race relations for years became at least as much the focus of school life as education. Angry mobs, frightened or hostile children, and policemen in school hallways did not foster an atmosphere conducive to learning. For a federal judge like W. Arthur Garrity Jr., who ran the Boston school system like a commissar for 11 years, the first priority could not be education. The white flight that busing accelerated often deprived urban schools of the most motivated pupils, whose mainstream values helped set a tone of order and relative respect for school. Americans like to think that schools can be used to change society, but the influence goes both ways. From the Sixties onward vast social and cultural changes twisted schools out of shape. Families grew unstable, what with the increasing divorce rate and, in a small sliver of society, an emerging underclass pathology. Says University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman, author of the well-known 1966 Coleman Report on education: ''Schools were never successful with children from families who didn't have a high level of educational aspirations and strong support for those aspirations.'' Faced with an influx of children from weak families, schools reduced their demands. They did so especially since the weak families included minority families whose advocates persuaded courts that the high failure and suspension rates among their children were evidence not of pupil shortcomings but of discrimination. Public education reduced itself to the lowest common denominator. Coleman's conclusion: ''Weak families have created weak schools, which are not good for kids from strong families.'' Nor are they good for children from weak families, who arguably need education the most. If U.S. education were like a run-down factory that required only a little sprucing up and modernizing, the situation wouldn't be so troubling. Instead, with the notable exception of some suburban schools and urban magnet schools, it more resembles an overgrown garden where weeds are beginning to choke out the wholesome growth and supplant it. The forces that have devastated traditional schooling have left not a vacuum but something like a new American culture that is disquietingly resistant to learning. This culture is producing a new democratic character, minutely anatomized in Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, whose runaway sales attest to the surge of national concern about the bankruptcy of education. At the center of this distinctive modern American personality is a profound belief that truth and values are relative and that therefore the proper attitude toward the world is an indiscriminate openness, a willingness to accept without judging. Students learn this in part from an education whose unthinking global pluralism tells them that different cultures are all much alike deep down, that the differences don't matter, that the most divergent ways of doing and believing and valuing are equally worthy of respect. It is an openness that by making all things equal makes them equally unimportant and therefore not very interesting to learn. Nothing else in the spirit of this age gives learning any hold on the young. They know that progress has made the past obsolete, with nothing to teach them. They are isolated in a complacent egoism fostered partly by progressive education's emphasis on the child's spontaneous feelings, partly by the emotional remoteness often engendered by the divorce of their parents or the evident impermanence of all the relationships around them, partly by an inability to attach themselves emotionally to a national community that they've been taught is no better than any other one, partly even by their omnipresent rock music's glorification of each adolescent impulse. You can certainly teach such children basics like math and science. But it will take skillful teachers, and especially teachers who are not immersed in this same culture, to get them at all fired up about the rest of our neglected cultural inheritance. Where to start to fix this mess? The education reformers offer an array of ingenious answers, some of which have begun to sprout programs. Their first helpful idea is that everyone involved -- students and especially every level of education authority -- must be held accountable for student performance. This means finding out how the students really are doing and publicizing the results. Is the individual student learning what he or she is supposed to learn? Twenty-four states make sure by demanding that he or she pass a competency exam for high school graduation, and 11 states require competency exams for promotion from grade to grade. Some states are mindful that a passing grade, designed to represent minimum acceptable performance, can turn into the norm, depressing standards rather than raising them. These states , keep the hurdle high. How do the students of each school perform? Over a dozen states publish a report card that grades and compares schools, allowing taxpayers and parents to hold authorities accountable by opposing higher taxes for schools or by voting out elected administrators or by complaining to teachers and principals. In Prince George's County, Maryland, Superintendent John A. Murphy makes his 172 principals answerable for their pupils' test scores by posting in his conference room bold graphs of each school's annual scores, prominently labeled with the principal's name. Murphy's school reforms get plenty of credit for the recent economic turnaround of this racially mixed area straddling the Washington Beltway. He came into office in 1984 vowing to raise his schools' scores from the 50th percentile range nationwide to the top quarter in 1990. The goals he sets for his principals go up annually in order to meet that mark, which he thinks he will reach a year ahead of schedule. So far, just knowing that the boss is watching has proved incentive enough. Says he: ''As in any business, if you're going to measure people to see whether or not they're performing, they're going to perform -- even if you can't reward them.'' But he already has started talking about including principals and teachers in a bonus pay plan, based -- to foster teamwork within each school -- on the success of a school's test scores, attendance rates, advanced course enrollment, and so on. Making each school responsible for its own results will of course require moving authority from the central school district bureaucracy to the principal, a move education reformers urge. Says William Kristol, chief of staff to Secretary of Education Bennett: ''The problem now is schools are overregulated but underaccountable. We should free up the principal and then reward him if he does well and change him if he does poorly.'' Accountability also extends to school boards and school superintendents, who in a handful of states can be placed under the thumb of a state monitor in case of gross incompetence. The Department of Education has been publicizing state-by-state College Board scores, often with the enthusiastic applause of governors. Says Richard P. Mills, chief education aide to New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean: ''You cannot be a governor without being an education advocate right now. If you're concerned about regional development, you have to be concerned about the quality of the graduates.'' Governors have also realized that education is their biggest budget item, swallowing around 40% of state revenues. You can't get far without improving the quality of teachers. Today's talented young people rarely choose the classroom as a career, especially now that smart, ambitious women are hardly restricted to traditional ''women's work'' like teaching. Last year's high school seniors who intended to major in education posted combined verbal and math College Board scores of 845, 61 points below the already dismal average of all seniors. Only 58% of these prospective teachers -- compared with 68% of all college-bound seniors -- had chosen an academic track in high school. The rest took general or vocational programs heavy in courses of the Bachelor Living ilk. In response, New Jersey has upped admission requirements for the education programs in its state colleges, and Missouri has set up grants and loans designed to attract into teacher-training programs students with high grades and SAT scores. Dismayed by teacher certification exams that often test little more than basic literacy, the Washington-based Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy has organized a National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, which will issue certificates to teachers who pass the rigorous tests it is now devising. Says foundation executive director Marc Tucker: ''You won't need it to get a job at first, but as in every other profession, people will want a board-certified professional.'' Universally contemptuous of the education major as a vapid and inadequate program, reformers agree that teachers need a four-year liberal arts education, with a major in whatever subject they plan to teach. The reformers recommend a further year or two learning teaching techniques, perhaps as an apprentice supervised by a master teacher. New Jersey has proved that teachers educated this way can succeed resoundingly in the classroom. It hires teachers who haven't taken the usual education courses required for certification if they have a BA in the subject they want to teach, can pass the Educational Testing Service's National Teacher Exam in it, and successfully complete a year's residency, which includes a sort of pedagogical boot camp. The 800 teachers New Jersey has hired by these criteria -- including retired business and military people, musicians, less well paid parochial school teachers, and recent college grads who have decided they'd like to teach -- have higher SAT scores and college % grades than teachers with education degrees. Now New Jersey is trying to set up a new route to the certification of principals. Instead of three years' teaching experience and three specialized courses, you will get certified with an MBA or any master's degree in management. All you'll need to do is take a management test, go through an assessment center, and work for a year under supervision. Wall Street casualties, look across the river. You can't attract better teachers without increasing their pay. But, says Prince George's superintendent Murphy, ''taxpayers are sick and tired of giving across-the-board raises and letting those people who aren't doing the job get more and more money.'' After all, per-pupil education expenditures between 1950 and 1986, adjusted for inflation, more than tripled to around a breathtaking $4,000, with most of the rise coming in the period when SAT scores plummeted. But taxpayers will tolerate increased spending tied to results, like Murphy's planned performance-based bonus or like Rochester, New York's new teacher career ladder. As teachers grow in competence through four defined ranks, their pay will go up to a peak for the very best of $60,000. Reformers like to point with fascination to the slums of Spanish Harlem, where Community School District 4 pulled itself from 32nd place out of 32 New York City school districts in test scores in 1973 to 16th today. Students reading at grade level rose from 16% to 63%. The secret: a network of elementary and junior high schools from which parents are free to choose the one they like best for their children, regardless of where they live in the district. Each school, headed by a director without tenure, has its own distinctive twist -- a focus on music or math, say, or a rigorous, traditional curriculum -- and so students separate themselves into groups according to their own or their families' ambitions for their future. Each school is small enough so that students aren't anonymous. Directors of these schools make their pitches to prospective students and their parents in the spring before students enter. The market mechanism operates: Schools get better and more various by competing to offer what people want. Those that offer it successfully flourish; the others dwindle. Warm fans of District 4 include some reformers who favor a voucher system for education. This would let parents send a child to either a public or an accredited private school, with the $4,000 or so of tax money earmarked for his education paid out accordingly. Competition would improve all the schools, these reformers say, probably correctly. The need to perform or go out of business would beat down vested interests resisting public school reform -- especially the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, which vehemently opposes merit pay, alternate teacher certification, and teacher competency testing. But if one object of education reform is to restore a shared cultural core to Americans, the centrifugal tendency of a voucher system seems a push in the wrong direction. The system inevitably would proliferate sectarian schools and so promote separateness rather than commonality. It would be justified as a last resort only if public education were bankrupt beyond repair, or if schools bent on satisfying every interest group developed curricula that were all periphery and no core, or if children who wanted to learn were prevented from getting a decent education by a disruptive population required to attend school. Most public schools haven't reached that point, though, and the reform movement is likely to keep them from it. A better solution is what California school authorities have been doing to the school curriculum. They have tried to come to grips with just what the core culture includes -- that shared national knowledge that E. D. Hirsch Jr. defined in the title of his best-selling book, Cultural Literacy. The state education department has drawn up a list of a thousand mainstream books -- from Cinderella to Great Expectations -- that ideally children should have read or listened to between kindergarten and high school graduation. The department also has just drawn up an extensive framework for a history and social studies curriculum that will begin in kindergarten with stories about how people lived in the past and with the simplest preliminary discussions of democratic values. From grades five through 12 students will alternate each year between courses in world history and American history, moving from earliest times to the present. California's state testing program will ensure that local schools teach what these curricula prescribe. Though the history curriculum celebrates cultural diversity, there's nothing relativistic about it; it aims to inspire a high respect for democracy. Unlike a high school in New York's Westchester County that, for fear of offending secularists, failed to tell pupils who was thanked on ! Thanksgiving, and defined a pilgrim as one who takes a very long journey, the California courses will deal straightforwardly with controversial or difficult issues, explaining their historical significance and outlining the current fuss over them. Says California superintendent of education Bill Honig: ''In a free country, where you have free choice, you have to choose from an educated perspective. Our teachers never make the most important point about education: It helps you lead a better life.'' If reformers can ensure such an education to the majority of Americans, it will be a famous victory.

CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: SOURCE: HAROLD STEVENSON, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN CAPTION: U.S. kids start high but slide . . . and do less homework Homework counts. Assistant secretary of education Chester Finn Jr. notes that children learn in proportion to the amount they study -- so those fifth-grade test results are no surprise. The scant time U.S. kids are required to spend on homework doesn't do much to build a work ethic, either. DESCRIPTION: Average score on general information test in kindergarten and fifth grade for United States, Japan and Taiwan; minutes of homework assigned per day, on weekdays and onweekends for United States, Japan and Taiwan. Color illustration: Child peeking over desk and reading book; child sitting at desk.