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School system is failing, Gray says

The American secondary school system is failing to produce graduates capable of being effective members of today's technology-driven society, the chairman of the MIT Corporation has told a state education commission.

Asked to address the question, "What should high school graduates know and be able to do?" Dr. Paul E. Gray said the goal of education must be to prepare people to live as effective and productive citizens, and this requires the capacity for satisfactory performance in the work force.

But the great majority of high school graduates "are not prepared to take their places in the high-performance work place" being reshaped by a "revolution in the character, content and requirements of jobs," he said.

In addition, Dr. Gray said, "altogether too many college graduates develop only the level of achievement which one finds commonly among high school graduates in Japan, Korea or Germany. Our effectiveness in educating technicians and craftsmen is abysmal."

Dr. Gray said every high school graduate should possess:

*An appreciation of the "social, cultural, economic and intellectual history" that shaped America "and which determines the realities of our present social condition."

*A skill level in reading, writing and speaking that allows an effective and productive relationship with today's "communications-driven, technology-intensive workplace and society."

*The capacity to understand concepts presented in numerical form, to apply basic mathematical methods to information and data and the capacity to reason logically and correctly in quantitative terms.

*A fundamental familiarity with the principles of science and their application to society. This skill is essential, he said, because citizens must have "the ability to distinguish sense from nonsense in the domains of science and its applications."

His suggestions were presented without implied priority, he made clear. "All are important," he said.

To undergird the whole, he said, students must be taught-and must believe-that study and learning are life-long propositions.

"The time is long past when a young person could enter the work force with a reasonable certainty that his or her education would be sufficient for a lifetime. The capacity and instinct for continued learning is. the essential survival skill now and for the future."

To be able to learn and change is also a vital "survival skill" for businesses, he said, and there must be "absolute devotion to the proposition that nothing is so good that it cannot be improved. "

Dr. Gray, a teacher of electrical engineering and an administrator at MIT for nearly 40 years, made his remarks to the Massachusetts Commission on the Common Core of Learning at a State House hearing January 11.

He was one of several leaders from academe, government and business to address the commission. Others who spoke included Chief Judge Stephen Breyer of the US Court of Appeals; John Hamill, president of Fleet Bank; Dr. Neil Rudenstine, Harvard University president; Governor William Weld; Dr. John Silber, president of Boston University; and Dr. John Curry, president of Northeastern University.

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 20).

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