Robert Atkinson, the head of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, has published a piece in the Huffington Post lamenting the incompetence of recent college graduates he’s hired over the years. He’s frustrated that America’s top schools can’t mint “graduates who can write basic sentences and do basic math.” Atkinson’s job applicants were unable to perform basic tasks on a short do-at-home test emailed to the applicants before they are selected for an interview. Atkinson says that ”[t]he questions are pretty simple: “Go to this person’s bio online and write a three or four -sentence version of their bio for us to include in a conference packet,” or, “Enter these eight items in a spreadsheet and tell us the average for the ones that end in an odd number.””
According to Atkinson, these grads can’t perform these tasks because colleges teach content rather than skills, and Atkinson believes that “for most college graduates and for most jobs (one exception being science and engineering jobs), it really doesn’t matter if they learn English literature or 20th century comic books. What does matter is if they acquire needed skills. And this kind of 21st century skill acquisition is at best something they pick up by chance in the course of learning about French literature or 20th century American politics. The result is that too many graduates have grown in knowledge on various subjects but not developed practical skills.”
Ignore, for a minute, that students actually don’t know all that much basic stuff. (This lack of knowledge is what Don Hirsch has called “the most significant deficit in most American students’ education.”) Look at the sample tasks from Atkinson’s test: Writing three or four sentences about something. Calculating the average of a few numbers. Don’t you think students should be able to do these things long before they arrive for orientation? (Hint: Many of them can’t.) But is it really a good use of time to have college professors diagramming sentences and demonstrating long division? If, as Atkinson puts it, “the American K-12 system is a failure,” is the best solution turning seminar rooms into fourth grade classrooms?
Atkinson thinks that’s part of the answer. He wants “a national test that all college grads should take to measure skills competency. This wouldn’t measure whether you know that Adolph Hitler was Chancellor of Germany or other “facts,” but rather skills like logic, reasoning, basic writing and math, etc.” There are already a couple of tests that try to do this. And the no-stakes NAEP assessment (the gold standard for ed testing) of reading ability for 12th graders shows that “students who leave school at the end of our K-12 education cannot read, learn, or communicate very well…because the schools are not effectively imparting the knowledge that the effective use of standard language depends on.” So Atkinson’s suggestion that students would learn skills if only we didn’t spend so much time on knowledge-building just doesn’t make sense because skill proficiency is contingent on domain knowledge.
The second component of Atkinson’s fix is a national survey of employers to find out what kind of skills they’re looking for. This is necessary because “most college students don’t even know the types of skills that are valued by the industries they want to work in. For example, do managers in accounting firms prefer young workers who can quickly and accurately proofread a spreadsheet or give a persuasive power point presentation?” Well, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills already does this kind of survey. Atkinson just wants one done by somebody else (the U.S. Department of Education). Atkinson’s survey would include questions on which schools produced the best employees (a very objective metric), and he believes that “doing so would help parents and prospective college students make decisions on which school is best for them.” There you have it: College is for learning how to write memos. Not all that other stuff. I’m glad I got out before the humanities were really and truly dead.