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Teaching the New Basic Skills (Free Press, 1996), a book on American education co-authored by Frank Levy, the Daniel Rose Professor of Urban Economics in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, has been a recent focus of media attention. He and co-author Richard Murnane of Harvard were interviewed during the "Conversation with David Gergen" on PBS's Jim Lehrer News Hour. The book was also the subject of a feature article by Lynn Olsen in the January 29 issue of Education Week. And the authors co-wrote an op-ed piece in the February 17 New York Times.

In Teaching the New Basic Skills, the authors discuss the need for elementary and secondary school reform and offer guidelines for achieving this goal. As a result of changes to the economy since the 1980-82 recession, workers without basic literacy and skills can no longer make good wages.

"During this time, the schools have actually gotten a little better--it's just that job requirements have risen much faster than the schools have improved," Professor Levy says. "This means that the problem is quite real, but it's difficult for parents to see because their kids' education is at least as good as the ones they themselves got."

In the New York Times piece, the authors contend that using federal financial incentives to allow more students to attend college will probably not result in a better work force. Many parents see a college education as a means of acquiring the training needed to get a good job, but in reality, employers are more likely to hire college graduates for a simpler reason, according to the book. Companies know that while a high school diploma is no guarantee of writing or math skills, "but they know that college students are likely to have mastered those skills in high school," so they hire them "as much for basic skills as what is learned in college."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 12, 1997.

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