The president of the National Alliance of Business thinks it's time for business to get involved in public education: not just tutoring, tours and talk but a role in how the schools are run, how teachers are trained and what they teach. He also wants a national assessment system to test how well our children learn.

"Our failing education system is contributing to the decline in our national competitive position in the world economy," William H. Kolberg told a House hearing yesterday. As a result, he said, "We are all beginning to see education issues in a national context and as a national problem."

The problem is clear enough. According to a recent NAB poll of the 1,200 largest U.S. corporations, only 36 percent of the companies are satisfied with the competency of their new employees. They lack the reasoning and problem-solving skills employers need and often require on-the-job remediation in basic reading and math. Moreover, personnel officers at these corporations said, both reading and math competency has slipped over the past five years.

One result, Kolberg told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and Labor, is that business has lost confidence in high school diplomas.

"Business needs assurances that students have achieved a certain level of competency upon graduation, no matter where in the country they went to school," he said. "The establishment of a system of national standards, coupled with assessment, would ensure that every student leaves compulsory school with a demonstrated ability to read, write, compute and perform at world-class levels in general school subjects {as well as} to learn, think, work effectively alone and in groups and solve problems."

The assessment system Kolberg has in mind would allow students to begin accumulating the necessary credentials as early as seventh grade.

"This kind of cumulative assessment has several advantages over a single series of examinations," he said. "It would help to organize and motivate students over an extended period of time; it would provide multiple opportunities for success, rather than a single high-stakes moment of possible failure. It would greatly enhance the opportunity for the undereducated and unmotivated to achieve high educational standards, and all could earn credentials at their own pace, as the criteria for any specific credential would not vary regardless of the student's age."

Kolberg believes that his proposal would bring America, with its 50 state school systems and 15,000 school districts, more nearly in line with its economic competitors, most of which operate national systems with national standards.

But haphazard academic standards are just part of America's competitive problem, Kolberg believes. He contrasted our approach with that of Western Europe.

"They insist that virtually all their students reach a high educational standard. We do not. They provide 'professionalized' education to non-college-bound students to prepare them for their trades and to ease the school-to-work transition. We do not. They operate comprehensive labor market systems, which combine training, labor market information, job search and income maintenance for the unemployed. We do not. They have national consensus on the importance of moving to high-productivity forms of work organization and building high-wage economies. We do not. . . .

"Education and skill preparation for work is seen as a public/private endeavor among our competitors. In those countries, education is part of a national strategy that educates not only for citizenship but also for employment."

In addition, he would involve business -- and the federal government -- more intimately in everything from early childhood education to curriculum and teacher training.

"Businesses, with their experience in human resource development, can lend important resources, whether staff time, advocacy or funding, to help recruit, retain or retrain professional educators. Experts from the private sector can be of enormous help to schools attempting to train their employees in group dynamics, decision making and problem solving. Corporate management-training manuals can be adapted to the education environment. Businesses can invite teachers into the workplace so that they can see the kinds of skills and knowledge their students need in order to succeed."

And the national government would provide not only the leadership in standard setting but also funding far beyond the estimated 10 percent of educational costs it now pays.

Kolberg's ideas -- if anyone takes them seriously -- are sure to raise the philosophical hackles of those who believe in education for its own sake, not as a means of supplying industry with competent workers. But if educating young people according to the demands of industry is bad, turning out youngsters unfit for even entry-level jobs, as we now do, is a great deal worse.