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Teaching the New Basic Skills

June 1997

by Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy

What do a fortune 500 company and an impoverished elementary school in Austin, Texas have in common? Read on for an overview of Murnane and Levy's insightful book on teaching the new basic skills.

Economists Murnane and Levy examine how changes in technology and global competition have altered the skill demands of entry-level employees. They delineate five governing principles that provide the foundation to guide students and employees to acquire and use the new basic skills. Case studies from schools and businesses that exemplify the five principles abound throughout the book.

Why "new skills"? How have skill needs changed?

Strong literacy and numeracy skills are necessary for employees; a certain level has always been necessary for upward mobility. But other skill demands have changed in the past 30 years. Old ways of managing employees:

New management style of business comes from:

The new skills embody this new style of management. They are:

These changes, in turn, demand very different learning experiences for students of all ages. Knowing how to think, how to acquire knowledge, and how to apply knowledge in creative ways is a learned process.

What solutions do Murnane and Levy offer?

The authors examine practices from businesses that have reorganized and transformed themselves for success in a globally competitive world. From analysis of these companies' practices, Murnane and Levy have noted five basic principles that enable success. These principles are as follows:

1. Ensure that all front-line workers understand the problem.

2. Design jobs so that front-line workers have both incentives and opportunities to contribute to solutions.

3. Provide all front-line workers with the training needed to pursue solutions effectively.

4. Measure progress on a regular basis.

5. Persevere and learn from mistakes; there are no magic bullets.

How do educational systems and teaching practices change to meet these needs?

Schools such as Zavala Elementary School in Austin have recognized that in order to help students be prepared to enter the workforce upon reaching graduation from the K-12 system, their students must acquire the general but fundamental skills that will enable them to continue to learn and contribute to the goals of any organization. This restructuring means providing the same opportunities for their students as successful businesses have done for their employees.

However, students cannot learn these skills within the same system that emphasized lower level standards. What enabled Zavala and other schools to encourage student achievement and commitment? Restructuring in schools concentrated on:

Seeing the problems holistically, instead of blaming any one part of the community (parents, teachers, administrators, students, or businesses).

1. Persevering to reach the goal of substantive and long term change within the system.

2. Providing the same guidance and support to teachers as is provided to students, namely: clear goals and training, opportunities for growth and incentives, and standards for assessment and measuring progress.

3. Providing strong leadership and getting buy-in from crucial individuals within the system.

As the goals were identified and teachers, students, parents, administrators and communities committed to the changes, then momentum towards building these skills began to occur. Murnane and Levy stress, however, that each school system and perhaps each school is unique and must "create its own strategy for implementing the Five Principles."

What does this mean for the Adult Basic Education student and instructor?

This book is an excellent overview of examples of how schools and businesses are providing support for students and employees to learn the job skills necessary for today's market. If you are interested in getting ideas to help make your students' experience match their future job and life skill needs closely, Murnane and Levy's case studies, observations, and analysis provide a framework to understanding a changing work world.

Ordering information: Teaching the New Basic Skills by Richard Murnane and Frank Levy, published by New York: The Free Press, 1996, ISBN: 0-684-82739-5. (Price: U.S. $24.00)

Here are some related online resources.

A Summary by Margarete Epstein for the Ohio Literacy Resource Center

Ohio Resource Center Network Ohio Adult Basic and Literacy Education
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