IN THE 1980s, business leaders and federal and state policy-makers concocted a myth that seized the public mind. It went something like this:
America's competitiveness in the international economy has eroded. A primary cause of the decline is that students graduating from U.S. public schools possess insufficient knowledge, skills and attitudes to be productive in the nation's offices, businesses and factories. The evidence is in their sliding standardized-test scores.
To reverse this unhappy situation, the myth-makers urged that school reformers do what successful businesses have done: set clear goals and standards; decentralize operations to facilitate decision-making; hold managers and employees responsible for outcomes and institute a reward and punishment system.
And that's largely what the National Governors' Association, President Bush and the last three secretaries of education have done. They want to set clear national goals and standards. Establish national examinations that every student must take as he or she moves through school. Report to parents and taxpayers exactly how their children and schools perform on these tests. Reward staff and schools that meet the mark and punish those that fall short. Restructure schools to place more decision-making authority in the hands of teachers and the principal. And let the parents choose which schools their children should attend.
The problem is that this reform recipe is based on an unexamined belief: that the decline in America's global economic position is due to the eroding productivity of the U.S. worker, which, in turn, is due to poor schooling. This assumption has been swallowed whole by many media anchors, pundits and policy-makers. But consider:
* Worker productivity has many sources. Introducing labor-saving technologies such as robots in auto factories, farming machines that combine operations or redesigning procedures that control the flow of work in fast-food restaurants will increase worker productivity. The training workers receive to operate the new machines or new processes occurs on the job. Business executives, not employees or school officials, make these decisions.
The knowledge and skills that workers possess, of course, matters. But companies are far more concerned about worker attitudes and habits than what school subjects their employees have mastered. Most foreign industries that have outpaced their U.S. counterparts have less educated work forces than America's.
Still, when U.S. companies succeed in overtaking their foreign competitors as a result of installing new machines, developing better techniques to organize production or instituting tougher quality-control procedures, do the retrained employees who do the work hear the applause? Hardly. Corporate management, the inventors of the machines and the university scientists who applied their knowledge to practical problems get the credit. But if corporate managers don't do any of these things and profits slip, the finger of blame points toward inept employees and lousy schools.
* Worker productivity and test scores were thought to be related when both measures began declining after 1965. Annual increases in worker productivity fell from three percent to zero percent, a stunning drop (seldom do increases rise above four percent). Meantime, test scores on the verbal and math portions of the Scholastic Aptitude Test fell five percent to 10 percent. But a national panel of experts concluded that 50 percent of the decline was due to an expanded pool of test-takers. Compared, then, with the collapse of productivity increases among American workers, the fall in test scores is trivial.
A greater flaw in the productivity-test score connection is the common-sense observation that a decline in test scores would only affect about 10 percent or more of the labor force who just graduated from high school. The major drop in productivity for the other 90 percent of workers would have to be explained by something other than a minor drop in tests results.
* No consensus exists among economists that schools are to blame for the productivity crisis. Some even question the relationship. Edward Denison of the Brookings Institution found no negative effects on productivity from schooling through 1982. Robert Solow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gives formal education only modest attention. Robert Reich of Harvard University argues that public schooling for some children, in fact, is excellent in preparing them to become professionals and top managers.
To claim that the United States has lost its competitive edge because American workers are less educated and thus less productive ignores many other plausible, even compelling, explanations. The manufactured myth takes a complex issue and reduces it to a bumper-sticker slogan: Bad schools equals bad economy. Therein lies a number of dangers.