Intelligent Design?

Are the graduates of Michigan’s public schools equipped with the know-how to perform well in workplace? There are grounds for serious doubt, whether you listen to businessmen or scholars.

For example, Lee Lynam, vice president for labor relations at Meijer headquarters in Grand Rapids, says employees just out of high school often lack the ability to think through a task or solve a problem on their own. "They have to be told what to do," she says, adding that the typical high school graduate as an entry-level employee "has a large problem understanding what business is all about. They don’t engage with the customer. They lack the ability to process information."

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At Kmart in Detroit, Karen Fauls, assistant human resources manager, says that the company looks for and tests entry-level employees, often fresh from school, for "common sense and reliability." This includes the "ability to adapt to new situations and work efficiently with others, and solve problems, which many don’t seem to have."

Jeff Patulski, president of Amptec, a Free Soil-based firm that makes electronic circuit board assemblies, echoes Fauls’s and Lynam’s sentiments: "We have to spend weeks training new employees who just don’t have the skills or ability to follow instructions."

The "skills" that these employers described are keys to workplace success — and are, in fact, basic components of intelligence.

Consider a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a scholarly periodical published by the American Psychological Association. In the course of assessing the impact of IQ on personal health,[1] author Linda S. Gottfredson quotes a description of intelligence endorsed by 52 experts in the field: "Intelligence … involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking ‘smarts.’ Rather it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings — ‘catching on,’ ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do."

Gottfredson notes that intelligence "affects job performance primarily indirectly by promoting faster and more effective learning of essential job knowledge during both training and experience on the job." She adds, however, "Higher levels of [intelligence] in the workplace also enhance job performance directly when jobs require workers to solve novel problems, plan, make decisions, and the like," with "increasingly large direct effects when jobs are less routinized or less closely supervised. …"

No doubt individuals possess varying levels of innate intelligence, but schools are supposed to cultivate it, not leave the task to employers. Businesses’ and universities’ complaints on this score are longstanding, and Michigan's efforts to redress the problem have not borne fruit.

A classic example is the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests, which children take at different grade levels as they progress through school. The test measures knowledge of content standards developed by state educators, and the state-sponsored exam is meant to encourage all Michigan public schools to make sure students develop basic knowledge and skills.

But as Williamston School Superintendent Joel Raddatz notes, the MEAP "lacks the ability to test conceptional thinking and literacy that could be attained if students were, say, given several questions and had to elaborate on answering them in a blue book."

Why the effectiveness of MEAP is flawed was pointed out by Hillsdale College Professor Gary Wolfram in an op-ed for the Spring 2000 Michigan Education Report. Wolfram, a former member of the Michigan Board of Education, explained that the public school system "is actually a political system that itself determines what is taught, how it is taught, and how well it is taught, without much reference to the needs and desires of the parent and kids who use the system." This, observed Wolfram, is merely one of "several reasons why the MEAP is of questionable effectiveness when it comes to weighing how successfully school districts are meeting the needs of students."

Thus, MEAP exams do not provide effective avenues for entrepreneurs or parents to determine what the children learn. Nor do they necessarily measure intellectual characteristics most sought by employers.

As a consequence, schools can find it easy to graduate students with substandard learning and skills. Gottfredson, for instance, notes that "educational level [such as a 12th grade education] is a fallible guide to any particular individual’s literacy level because education through high school represents only years of exposure to learning, not actual accomplishment." Remedial instruction is required by between 30 percent and 90 percent of all U.S. community college students, according to the Center for Community College Policy.

Big changes in Michigan's school systems are a must if the typical public school graduate is going to be anywhere near prepared for the needs of the workforce — especially a workforce called upon to meet the increasingly specialized and demanding jobs of the 21st Century.


Tait Trussell is an award-winning writer who collaborates on occasional projects with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

[1] "Intelligence: Is It the Epidemiologists' Elusive 'Fundamental Cause' of Social Class Inequalities in Health?" by Linda S. Gottfredson, January 2004 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 86, No. 1).