Clinton test plan backed by Silicon Valley firms

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
UNITED STATES. High-tech employers are anxious at the lack of an educated workforce, reports Jon Marcus.

Concerned about the lack of well-educated workers, more than 240 executives of high-technology companies are supporting President Bill Clinton's proposal to test public-sector students nationwide in maths and reading.

Most of the executives work in California's Silicon Valley, the high-tech hub of a state that is pivotal to Mr Clinton's plan for voluntary national performance standards, and maths and reading tests for 10- and 14-year-olds.

The president has vowed to make establishing such tests a top priority of his second term, and told a White House meeting of business leaders that Silicon Valley's backing gives him "powerful new momentum". He will need it.

The president faces fierce political opposition from conservatives who argue that national tests would intrude on traditionally local control of education. So far, only three of the 50 states - Maryland, Michigan and North Carolina - have accepted the idea.

John Doerr, a partner in a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, said he and the other executives who endorsed the Clinton plan would canvass the country for support. They include Republicans and Democrats, he said.

"We all agree that we need national education standards," Mr Doerr said.

Unlike most of its industrial competitors, the United States has no national standards for core academic subjects. It is also having trouble supplying qualified workers for its fast-growing companies - including those in Silicon Valley, which employ 500,000 people and have created 130,000 new jobs in the past four years - industry officials said.

"There's obviously a distinction between the short-term hiring problem we have now and fixing education, which is a long-term problem," said Edward Ipser, president of the Silicon Valley Association of Software Entrepreneurs and director of product development at a company he said is having problems finding qualified computer programmers.

"But people are taking a much longer view," he said. "If we don't do something now, you can invent all kinds of really scary scenarios where you have maybe a few people that go to good schools and get good jobs, and the rest of the people from other schools who end up cooking hamburgers for a living."

Many teachers, who previously jealously guarded the idea of local educational control, have also come out in support of testing.

"When you stop to think about it and when you engage the conversation in terms of the mobility of our society, in terms of really providing equal opportunity and having some standards so that everyone can compete, this local control mantra starts to break down," said Mary Bergan, president of the California Federation of Teachers. "Standards just tell you where you need to go. They aren't going to tell you how to teach."

With 5 million students in its public-sector schools, California is vital to the president's proposal. "If any state understands the challenges we face in the 21st century in the global economy and an information age, it is surely California," Mr Clinton told the White House meeting.

But objections to national testing may also be strongest in that state.

California's Republican governor, Pete Wilson, put a stop to a short-lived, state-wide testing programme when religious conservatives complained they were offended by some of the reading selections.

Governor Wilson has yet to take a position on the president's proposal.

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