A DECADE ago a citizens' commission that included such luminaries as Hillary Rodham Clinton and William Julius Wilson issued a report called The Forgotten Half. Its title denoted the 50 percent of young workers whose formal education ended in high school. At the time, hard data had begun to appear revealing what we now call the wage gap. As a later study showed, in the years from 1979 to 1987 younger male workers with a high school education or less experienced a sharp fall in pay, and the gap between their earnings and those of younger college graduates tripled. This half of the generation needs help, the report said, and it described some forms the help might take.
In retrospect what's striking about this report on new high school graduates is its cursory treatment of their years in high school. Such treatment is striking not because it's unusual but because it has since become so common -- in part, perhaps, because the running story of the wage gap seems to teach a clear lesson: As an economic credential the high school diploma is dead. Or, more precisely, high school is rarely enough by itself to equip one to earn a middle-class income. A knowledge economy requires knowledge workers, and what it takes to be one is a four-year-college degree. Given this lesson, it's not surprising that most discussion of the work prospects of high school graduates focuses on how to get more of them to college. President Bill Clinton assumes that the cost of college is what holds off a lot of those who don't go, and he has argued for the creation of tax breaks that could partly offset the cost.
Few academic economists have done more to track the fall of high school graduates' earnings than Frank Levy, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose findings on this and related subjects have gained wide currency. In a sample of fifty media stories from the past ten years on such topics as the changing size of the middle class, the economic status of the Baby Boom, how young people are doing relative to their parents, and how the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, half might contain Levy's numbers, with or without attribution. In the work he did in the 1980s on high school graduates' earnings, Levy didn't argue that a high school diploma is no longer a credential, but his findings appeared to be consistent with this view -- and as they spread through the media, they probably lent some support to it.
Now, however, in Teaching the New Basic Skills, Levy and a frequent collaborator, Richard Murnane, an economist at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, directly assess this view. Yes, they say, a high school education is no longer enough to earn a middle-class living -- but that doesn't have to be true.
MURNANE and Levy begin by accepting familiar premises: As the economy of the 1970s gave way to the economy of the 1980s, the nature of frontline work, such as making cars or handling insurance claims, baking bread or repairing photocopiers, shifted. Jobs consisting of routine steps that could be performed by high school graduates began to require the use of discretion. Many of these upgraded jobs pay middle-class wages, but not all new high school graduates can do the head work. They are left with the remaining routine jobs, usually at low wages.
Through their fieldwork on upgraded jobs in factories and offices, and a review of earlier studies of them, the authors identify six skills that the new jobs require -- the new basic skills of the book's title. Reading at a ninth-grade level and doing math at a ninth-grade level are two of them, and one or both of these skills play a direct role in three more: solving problems, communicating orally and in writing, and using a computer for word processing and other tasks. The sixth is the ability to collaborate in diverse groups.
High school students usually aren't tested on all six (some of the six don't lend themselves to machine-readable tests), but they are tested on the cornerstone skills of reading and math. The scores, Murnane and Levy say, paint "a sobering picture: close to half of all seventeen-year-olds cannot read or do math at the level needed to get a job in a modern automobile plant." The authors don't say this, but it's likely that many of the seventeen-year-olds who read and do math well enough for such jobs are the students who go on to college. Thus the ones who seek work right out of high school are chiefly those students who don't score well. The shortfall in reading and math has two damaging consequences that combine in a vicious circle: Given what they see in their pool of job applicants, employers are reluctant to hire new high school graduates for upgraded jobs. Given the visible failure of those in school ahead of them to get good jobs, students in junior high and early high school believe that what they do in class has no value. There is no incentive to learn reading and math. This extends the pattern that puts off employers.
The vicious circle needn't exist, the authors suggest; reading and math are in fact worth learning, because they have enough value to bring a high school graduate a wage of, say, $30,000 a year. The authors analyze wage data for the high school classes of 1972 and 1980. They examine the difference fundamental to the wage-gap story, of course: high school versus college. But they also examine the impact of reading skills and math skills among the class members who did not go on to college.
Two years out of school the workers with only a high school education demonstrated little variation in their earnings. This suggests that they had yet to distinguish themselves as individuals in the eyes of the labor market. Six years after graduation, however, their earnings had begun to spread out. This suggests that the added four years allowed them to start to show what they could do. Moreover, the high earners proved to be those who got high test scores in high school, and the low earners were those who got low scores. The differences in high school skills presumably explain the differences in earnings.
There was also a difference between the two high school classes. The wage gap between high scorers and low scorers in the class of 1980 was greater than the gap in the class of 1972. So the reward for having reading and math skills rose in the intervening eight years. Although employers became less likely to reward young high school graduates, high scorers in the class of 1980 made the cut anyhow -- less because of their diplomas, presumably, than because of their performance.
In Murnane and Levy's comparison of high school graduates with the members of their class who got college degrees, the wage gap between college-educated women and all high school-educated women is 20 percent greater for the class of 1980 than for the class of 1972. But when college women are compared with high-scoring high school women only, the growth in the gap disappears. This doesn't mean that the high school women earned as much as the college women, but it does mean that their earnings grew at the same rate as the earnings of college women, which in turn suggests that their ability to meet the new demands of employers paralleled the ability of the college women to do the same. When the college men of 1980 are compared with high-scoring high school men only, a third of the growth in the gap between high school men and college men disappears. This is the key finding in The New Basic Skills: the skills that explain much of the growth in the wage gap between high school and college workers can be learned by students before they finish high school. As the book argues, reading and math and the other four skills "could be taught to most students."
Sometimes they are, of course. Ninth-grade reading, ninth-grade math, and writing are newly valued in frontline work, but they clearly aren't new to the schools. Other skills would be new only in that they're no longer widely taught today: how to solve semi-structured problems, how to make oral presentations. The true additions are computer skills and the ability to work in diverse groups.
If Murnane and Levy are right, what it takes to earn a middle-class living needn't be a two-year or four-year degree or a training certificate; a K-12 education can impart these skills, increasing the share of students who master them and get the kinds of math and reading scores that were achieved by the high scorers in the classes of 1972 and 1980. Teaching necessary skills, the authors assert, should be the chief objective of our schools.
At first glance this book's key finding, set against the apparent lesson of the wage-gap story, looks counterintuitive, and though such findings make good reading, they're usually hard to sell in public debate. In the debate on how the nation should target efforts to help its forgotten half, the case for college dominates. Period. Consider how high school graduates vote with their feet. Since publication of The Forgotten Half the share of graduates who go to college has risen from 57 percent to 62 percent. Nevertheless, this book's plea for the new basic skills to be taught in high school can run with, rather than against, the college tide.
If we add to the public subsidy for public colleges, we might see a modest increase in the share of students who go to college because they'll now be able to afford to go, but we won't do much for those who can't go on because they can't do college work and are thus consigned to low-wage jobs. If we can create more high school graduates with the new basic skills, we can give those who don't go on a better chance at the upgraded jobs. And we can also add to the share of graduates who go on to college and get academic traction there. What it takes to qualify for a job in a modern auto plant or at an airline ticket counter is probably pretty close to what it takes to do the work in the majority of the nation's colleges today. As such workplaces have become more demanding, college has become less so. Show me a high school senior with the new basic skills, and I'll show you someone who is a sound college prospect.
Ralph Whitehead Jr. is a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He served in the U.S. Department of Labor from 1994 to 1995.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1997; High School and the New Jobs; Volume 280, No. 3; pages 112-116.