The condition of California’s public schools has business leaders buzzing.
In just the past few weeks, two issues have come to the forefront — math standards and bilingual education — that will play a big part in the shaping of the work force of the future.
“In the new economy, workers will not only need the basic skills … but they have to be able to work in groups, problem-solve, conceptualize, communicate orally and in written form,” says Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction.
But what’s the best way to get there?
Last Thursday, the Board of Education adopted new math standards for California’s 5.6 million public- school students. Though the standards aren’t mandatory, they are expected to form the basis for new textbooks and statewide academic-achievement tests.
Yet Ms. Eastin, as well as other educators and business leaders appointed to a state standards commission, complain that the board’s plan is too narrow.
These critics contend that the board’s approach emphasizes rote computation and memorizing formulas — and is essentially a rejection of the commission’s recommendation to accentuate conceptual understanding and problem solving. Bill Lucia, the Board of Education’s executive director, counters that the new standards blend problem-solving with basic skills — a “balance” that was missing from the commission’s proposal.
The new math standards come on the heels of last month’s decision by the board to approve reading and writing standards that stress phonics and spelling. And next year, the board is scheduled to adopt new standards for science and social studies.
Meanwhile, also sparking discussion among business leaders is a proposed initiative by Silicon Valley software executive Ron Unz that would end state funding for bilingual education in public schools. The measure would effectively ban non-English-speaking students under the age of 10 from learning in their native language, replacing bilingual classes with a method called “English immersion.”
Opponents of the initiative say it will doom many of the state school system’s 1.3 million limited-English speakers to academic ruin. But proponents argue that bilingual curriculums have been an utter failure. And late last month, they submitted signatures to state election officials in an effort to get the initiative placed on the June ballot.
Given this flurry of developments, The Wall Street Journal asked executives at a cross-section of California companies what basic skills they expect their employees to have, and what the state’s public schools should be teaching students to prepare them for the job market.
Although not in any way a scientific sample, the responses indicate that there is hardly a consensus on these complex issues within the corporate community.
Charles Schwab Corp.
While San Francisco-based Schwab hires very few of its 11,000 employees directly out of high school, Mr. Stupski believes the public schools are failing to adequately teach problem-solving skills. And he is concerned that with the new math standards, the Board of Education is “losing sight” of this problem.
Mr. Stupski, who was one of three business executives on the standards commission’s 10-member math committee, says the toughest jobs to fill at his own company are those related to information technology.
“A kid who’s successful at that can’t simply decide to pick it up in college,” he says. “It starts with getting interested in math and science and computers in grade school and using and developing those skills over time.”
Executive Vice President
Varian Associates Inc.
Mr. Levy says that while the state is the birthplace of the Internet and serves as the focal point for much of the computer industry, many high-school graduates he sees have never even worked on a computer. “It’s amazing that can happen here,” says Mr. Levy, whose Palo Alto-based company makes semiconductor equipment and health-care instruments.
But unlike Mr. Stupski, he suggests that the Board of Education made the right move on math standards. What needs to be focused on, Mr. Levy says, are the “rote basics.”
As for students mastering broader conceptual skills, “I don’t think that’s been a problem,” says Mr. Levy, who serves as chairman of the American Electronics Association.
In fact, unless the basics are addressed, Mr. Levy is worried that the current labor shortage facing the high- tech industry will only worsen. Two-thirds of AEA-member companies that bring in less than $20 million a year in revenue are “really dying because they can’t find the people to do the jobs,” he says.
General Manager of Human Resources
New United Motor Mfg. Inc.
Even at a place like New United Motor — a joint venture between General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. and the only car-assembly plant left in California — workers are increasingly required to have more than simply strong arms.
“We’re looking for people who are good at problem-solving,” says Mr. Sturdevant, whose operation employs some 5,000 people — about 70% of whom have only a high-school diploma. “I don’t think kids are getting enough exposure to that.”
Tests designed to assess math skills, reading comprehension, teamwork ability, physical fitness and personality traits are given to those who apply for a job at the Fremont facility. And while Mr. Sturdevant doesn’t track the exact number of applicants who don’t perform well on the tests, he says “the failure rate is significantly higher than it should be for the level of questions that are asked.”
Executive Vice President
Sanwa Bank of California
In addition to the obvious math skills required of the 3,000 people employed by this Los Angeles-based retail banking operation, reading, writing and computer skills are “critical for any job, even entry-level clerical jobs,” says Ms. Fowler.
But she says it’s pretty easy these days “to find people at all levels that have computer experience.” While California’s schools are notorious for not being wired, Ms. Fowler figures that some kids may be picking up computer skills at home.
The other thing that has become “more and more important,” Ms. Fowler adds, “is cognitive ability _ the ability to think and problem-solve.” But she’s reasonably encouraged by the job applicants she sees being churned out by California’s schools. “People’s skills are not that horrible,” she says.
Cisco Systems Inc.
Like Schwab, Cisco, a computer-network equipment maker based in San Jose, has few entry-level jobs. But Mr. Morgridge says students who are not going on to college because they don’t have the basic skills — or academic desire — create a problem for high-tech companies like Cisco.
“We, perhaps more than any other state, are reliant on the quality of human capital,” he says, “and right now we’re importing a lot of it.”
Beyond that, Mr. Morgridge believes that “in all of this debate, the one group that has not been focused on are teacher’s colleges, and yet they’re what generate the people who are teaching our children.”
Wall Street Analytics
Mr. Unz, who heads a company of about 20 employees in Palo Alto, is best known for leading the drive to wipe out bilingual education, but he has no shortage of opinions on education in general. In fact, he is perfectly happy to take a swipe at what he calls the “gobbledygook” proposed by the businesspeople who served on the math-standards committee.
“Those corporate executives who are not involved with education are awed by professors of education that come up with faddish theories,” he says. “Everyone believes it’s important to be able to work in a team and conceptualize, but oftentimes that develops through rigorous learning.”
Chairman, President and CEO
Alliance Pharmaceutical Corp.
Education and its impact on recruiting is foremost on Mr. Roth’s mind these days as his San Diego-based biotechnology company struggles to fill 20 jobs. “We’ve never been that far behind,” he says.
In general, Mr. Roth says he’s looking for well-rounded people who not only are literate in science, math and computers, but who can also write clear and concise reports and letters to the federal Food and Drug Administration and Wall Street. One way to increase the pool of qualified applicants, he contends: Get rid of bilingual education.
About four years ago, Mr. Roth says, his company recruited four scientists from Russia. Because there were no Russian-speaking teachers in the San Diego public schools, their children were put into classes taught in English. In no time, he says, they were more than proficient.
“They came here not speaking a word of English, and now they speak it better than some of the kids who’ve been here longer,” Mr. Roth says.
Future Industrial Technologies Inc.
Mr. Downing, who runs a Santa Barbara-based ergonomic-consulting firm, says the schools need to get back to the basics.
“When I went to school, we didn’t have calculators and we had to memorize spelling,” says Mr. Downing, who recalls firing one employee because “she couldn’t put a letter together” and not hiring a job applicant because “she couldn’t figure out what 10% of something was.”
But Mr. Downing, who recruits about 30 people in California each year to join his staff of nearly 1,000 nationwide, thinks it may be a mistake to eliminate bilingual education.
“When we go overseas, say, to France, I’m wondering how we would do there if we were forced to learn the language first,” he says.
Donna M. Dell
ABM Industries Inc.
Most of the employees at ABM Industries, a San Francisco-based supplier of janitorial and building services, have no more than a high-school diploma.
Overall, Ms. Dell says, the company’s more than 18,000 workers in California have “adequate” language and communication skills. But “it seems that as people move into promotional opportunities .. that’s where we begin to see a lack of basic comprehension skills, particularly in the area of math.”
Cool Carriers USA Inc.
This shipping company, based in Port Hueneme, hires about 150 people a day from the halls of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union. “They have to be pretty good at math” to keep track of what goes on the ship, says Mr. Fountain.
Yet he’s more upbeat than Ms. Dell and some of the others when it comes to public education in California. “I hear all the time that we’re below the average in student scores and achievement, but I don’t see it from where I sit,” he says. “I got grandkids going to school, and I feel that they’re smarter than I was at that age."