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How parents are wrecking their kids' job prospects

Nicole Goodkind
Nicole Goodkind

The biggest problem with the job market may no longer be companies that don't want to hire, but young workers who learned the wrong skills and habits from their parents.

The so-called skills gap is getting more and more attention from economists and hiring experts. In its annual talent survey, Manpower Group reports that 40% of U.S. companies report difficulty filling jobs. The survey of more than 37,000 employers found that technicians are most in demand, followed closely by engineers. Mark Weinberger, CEO of EY (formally Ernst & Young) told Yahoo Finance he’s looking to hire 65,000 people this year but can’t find enough Americans with the appropriate skillset.

The skill gap starts young. A report by testing-company ETS found that Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 ranked well below average in literacy and numeracy when compared with the rest of the developed world. Young Americans are more educated than any generation in American history--yet young people elswhere are making even bigger strides.

Eva Moskowitz has provocative ideas for how to narrow the skills gap. She’s the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, which operate 32 schools around New York City with imminent plans to expand. The schools are controversial. According to the New York Times,  Students work hard and are disciplined publicly, with grades posted openly for all to see. An email leaked from an administrator to teachers stated that students falling behind should feel “misery” as an incentive to do better. Some students have even wet themselves during practice tests when teachers wouldn’t allow them to take bathroom breaks, the Times piece says.

To watch our full interview with Eva Moskowitz, click here.

But the schools get results. Last year, just 29% of New York City public school students passed statewide reading tests and 35% passed math tests. At Success Academy schools, which serve mostly poor, inner-city students, 64% passed reading exams and 94% passed math exams. For the 2014-2015 school year there were 22,000 applications for 2,300 slots. Critics argue that Success teaches the kind of rote learning measured on tests that disserve disadvantaged students, but there are few other experiments in public education that have achieved similar results.

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Besides, Moskowitz has discovered that many American students are underperfoming, not just poor ones. “Most people think of the educational crisis as something that afflicts the poorest students,” Moskowitz tells Yahoo Finance. “And of course it does. But even our high performing kids in America are not competing with high performing kids around the world, and that has profound implications.”

The blame may lie not with teachers, but with parents. “We’re very concerned in America with self-esteem rather than academic mastery,” says Moskowitz. Instead of complimenting their kids and making them feel comfortable, she says, parents should challenge their kids and cultivate a rigorous environment at home. Parenting 101, Moskowitz-style: Make sure kids read for at least an hour a day, check that all homework is actually done, and visit the kids' schools to make sure they're delivering results.“We’ve got to turn off the TV,” she says. “Kids aren’t reading enough and they’re not competing in chess enough and they’re not on the math teams enough."

Good schools actually depend on high levels of parental volvement, Moskowitz says. As for holding kids to high standards, she argues that's necessary to prepare them for the demands of living as an adult. “It’s stressful to pay your mortgage," she says. "It’s stressful to hold down a full-time job. Life is stressful and we think schools have to prepare kids to manage that kind of stress.”

Success Academy begins teaching children computer science in kindergarten. Coding is as important as math, Moskowitz says, urging kids to study it every day. Her school also focuses heavily on math and science courses. Moskowitz expects this to be the norm in public schools 20 years from now--as it's already the norm in many other countries.

Moskowitz also thinks there’s a soft-skills gap: “Do we teach kids to shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye? We used to.” While calling parents to task, she believes schools have some responsibility to instill these abilities in children, too. At Success Academy, students must shake their principal’s hand each morning. And if the student doesn’t look the principal in the eye, they’re reprimanded.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to indicate that Success Academy operates 32 schools, not 34, and that there were approximately 2,300 open slots in the current school year, not 2,688. An earlier version of this story failed to cite the New York Times for its reporting on Success Academy.

Yahoo Finance also chose to include the following statement from Pat Wechsler, managing director of communications at Success Academy:

“This article makes false assertions. Anyone who's taught in a school knows children have accidents. It's absurd to suggest we don't permit our students to go to the bathroom during a test. Also, we do not reprimand students for not shaking hands or failing to make eye contact. And we do not teach by rote. Teaching by rote would produce bad results, and Success Academy is in the top 1% in the state in Math and top 3% in English Language Arts.”

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