IN CONTRAST to the hubbub of activity on setting new academic standards for America's schools -- what students should know in order to graduate -- little coherent attention has been given to the question of what they should know to be able to hold down jobs. Changes in technology keep sharpening this question, especially if we're talking about the "good jobs at good wages" of 1988 campaign fame. Much has been made of the haphazard ways in which American graduates wind up in the jobs they ultimately get and the lack of any stated connection between their schoolwork and its later use in the "real world." But what is that connection, and what are the skills they need? An ambitious report from the Rochester, N.Y.-based Center for Education and the Economy, bearing the names of two former labor secretaries and a gaggle of CEOs, attempts to tackle this question. It ends up demonstrating that there is no consensus on such skills and that any attempt at welding one brings the welders right back to the familiar academic skills that our schools are already failing to teach kids.

The report's dubious centerpiece is a policy recommendation that the United States develop a "certificate of initial mastery" and that no one under 16 be allowed to work without first gaining one (or being in training to do so). Mastery of what? "A demonstrated ability to read, write, compute and perform at world-class levels in ... mathematics, physical and natural sciences, technology, history, geography, politics, economics, and English. ... Students should also have exhibited a capacity to learn, think, work effectively alone and in groups, and solve problems." Leaving aside the many problems with the certificate idea (is it desirable, or legal, to bar any group of people from employment? What about those who can't pass it?), one is still left with the interesting reminder that "work skills" are not a magic bypass to the challenge of educating students properly. Indeed, the convergence between academic basics and workplace "new basics" has been accelerating and is near complete.

The question of what happens after the basics -- which students should be encouraged to specialize in job skills, which in college subjects -- is one that Americans have been historically reluctant to engage. It involves making distinctions between the college-bound and the non-college-bound that most countries to which we compare our work force (Japan, various European economies) make far earlier and with far less possibility of reversal. This American reluctance to sort people out early (explicitly, at least) through schooling is a reflection of the society's relative openness, and efforts to improve vocational education have always had to fight the perception that they interfere with that openness. Because only half of all high school graduates now go on to college, there's undoubtedly a role for work-skills training. But academic basics remain the cornerstone, and teaching them effectively in the schools is still the single most direct route to easing the labor force's problems.