When American manufacturers decided 10 years ago that boosting quality was the key to regaining their competitiveness, a beefed-up warranty often was the first step. If they couldn't produce a defect-free car, the thinking went, they could at least guarantee to the customer that he wouldn't be stuck with repair bills for the first 50,000 miles. Quality would follow when the factory figured out that building it right the first time was cheaper than paying warranty claims.
Now, American educators -- who've taken their share of the heat for the nation's fading competitiveness -- are getting the same message. Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, says that beginning with the class of '94, each high school graduate will come with a written warranty assuring companies that the grad has the basic skills needed to enter the work force. If the employer is not satisfied, the school district will provide remedial training at the district's expense.
The idea has been tried by a few other school systems, including districts in Prince Georges County, Md., and Plymouth, Mass., which have experienced few if any "returns." But the sprawling Los Angeles system may be the ultimate experiment. Over half its 640,000 students live below the poverty line. Half speak little or no English when they enter school.
BUSINESS NUDGE. Los Angeles' diploma warranty will go well beyond the three Rs. It is based on the July recommendations of the Labor Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), which attempt to identify the so-called skills gapbetween graduating seniors and entry-level employees (table).If the warranty program works, it will force a top-to-bottom makeover of the L. A. system, much like the overhauls that manufacturers went through in the past 20 years. "It's going to make a difference in what we teach and how we teach," says William R. Anton, superintendent of schools. The major curriculum change -- and expense -- will be offering students access to computers.
The rest can be handled by having teachers teach the current curriculum differently. Take the teaching of teamwork. "In the business world, sharing responsibility for a project is called teamwork," says Assistant Superintendent Gabriel Cortina, one of three educators on the Labor Dept. panel. "In classrooms, the way we teach today, it's called cheating." Educators now are finding that two or three students working as a team can often solve problems that they couldn't handle individually.
The L. A. warranty, and the rebuilding it portends, was a direct result of prodding by local businesses. They've had to boost spending on remedial training and technology to overcome lower-skilled workers. Pacific Bell, for one, has found more than half its applicants for entry-level jobs, such as operators, fail a simple seventh-grade reading and math test.
A GIMMICK? Some critics dismiss the warranty as a gimmick. A Los Angeles Times editorial railed against it, concluding that if an L. A. diploma was still worth anything, it wouldn't need a warranty. And the teachers' union was livid at the announcement, which came two days after the school board approved a 3% cut in pay. "It's smoke and mirrors to take attention away from the real problems," says spokeswoman Catherine M. Carey.
Outsiders aren't so sure. "Our teachers view it as a big vote of confidence in them," says Bernard Sidman, superintendent of the Plymouth-Carver Regional School District in Plymouth, Mass. There, a two-year-old program requires students to pass the state's ninth-grade basic-skills test before graduation.
Local executives note that the warranty itself is less important than what it signals: recognition of the problem and willingness to confront it. "It's clear Anton doesn't have all the pieces in place, but someone, somewhere in a leadership position has to put out the vision," says Kenneth G. Docter, a Price Waterhouse vice-chairman. "Think of it as Ford saying 'Quality is Job 1.' " Ten years later, Ford may not match the Japanese for quality, but it's a lot closer than if it hadn't set the goal.
SKILLS LOS ANGELES AIMS TO GUARANTEE
The Labor Dept.'s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills identified these
attributes as those most sought by business in high school graduates:
BASIC SKILLS: Reading, mathematics, effective communications
THINKING SKILLS: Problem solving, reasoning, mental visualization
PERSONAL QUALITIES: Integrity, self-management, initiative, responsibility
RESOURCES: Budgeting time, money, materials, and staff
INTERPERSONAL SKILLS: Leading, negotiating, working on teams
INFORMATION: Using technology to get, organize, and interpret data
SYSTEMS: Understanding and improving social and organizational systems
TECHNOLOGY: Selecting, applying, and troubleshooting technology