On March 14, two members of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce answered readers’ questions on readying students for a rapidly changing, globalized world, and the group’s December 2006 report “Tough Choices or Tough Times” in particular. They were Marc S. Tucker, the president of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy and the commission’s staff director, and Thomas W. Payzant, the former superintendent of the Boston schools. Below are excerpts from the discussion.
Question: “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” the Educational Testing Service’s report “America’s Perfect Storm,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s repeated calls for a strengthening of the No Child Left Behind Act—all seem to be pressing for radical changes in American education and calling for them to happen now. Is there real consensus? How close are we as a nation to “just doing it,” as we did in that post-Sputnik summer of 1958, when we remade the schools overnight with stronger math, science, and foreign-language curricula? We baby boomers were the beneficiaries of that movement. What legacy are we going to leave?
Tucker: A great question—which, appropriately, seems to be addressed to your contemporaries, rather than me. This is the moment of truth for us. The best the commission could do was show why it is necessary to act and to paint a picture of what we can achieve if we do. For what it is worth, the reaction we have gotten to the report thus far suggests that the country might just rise to the occasion. It is too early to tell for sure, but the very strong interest and enthusiasm we are getting gives me lots of hope.
Question: Help me understand the advantage in having educators employed by states rather than by districts, as the commission recommends.
Read the full transcript of this chat.
Payzant: States would have to develop the capacity to manage a complex human-resources organization. The advantages would be in setting uniform standards and expectations; aligning them with certification requirements; having quality control, efficiencies of scale, and a single collective bargaining contract in states with public-employee collective bargaining; establishing incentives to attract educators to work in hard-to-fill areas, such as math, science, English as a second language, and special education; and making salary adjustments based on variations in cost of living in various areas of the state. Educators would still have to be hired by schools, but it would be from the state pool.
Question: I am curious about the logic of shifting from district to state control. I teach science in a high-performing public one-school district. Our autonomy has allowed us to focus our individual and collective energies on educating students, rather than navigating multilevel bureaucracies. When we assess a need, we can address it efficiently, reflect on effectiveness immediately—in short, we can act! I love my job and am active in recruiting undergraduates in science and math to consider teaching as a rewarding career. I’m not sure how this will all translate if my district loses its autonomy to state-level control. I’m open to change, but I need convincing that this is change in the right direction.
Tucker: Yours is a very reasonable concern. I think many educators in districts with high-income-bracket parents will be asking this in some form. Our top-performing districts get their results in part because they can attract the very best teachers, offer the best facilities, and, most important, give their students the company of other students who, for the most part, have very high aspirations, a lot of intellectual and emotional support from home, and the self-confidence needed to go the distance when the going gets tough. That is great for them, but concentrating these very scarce resources in a handful of districts gives the nation as a whole no chance of reaching for the stars.
Every single nation that we have seen that has high achievement overall has a strong central education authority that is highly respected by professional educators and has the lead role in formulating education policy. We have never had that in the United States, and so it is hard for us to imagine. But, for those of us who have looked hard at these issues all over the world, it is hard to imagine how we will have a competitive education system unless we do whatever is necessary to build strong—and much admired—state departments of education. They should not, repeat not, operate in an autocratic way, but rather make their will felt through the respect in which they are held. In the countries I am referring to, the best ministries of education are thought of as “us,” not “them.”
Question: Pertaining to the commission’s recommendation for testing 16-year-olds for immediate entry into community or technical colleges, what recourse would students who chose that pathway have if, later in life, they wished to change course and pursue a different pathway in education? One of the most compelling features of our current system is that it allows for flexibility and choice throughout life. I’d be very concerned if this feature were restricted—if, say, a student who chose a technical college at age 16 were precluded as a result of this choice from later applying to a four-year university.
Payzant: Probably 80 percent of those in the workforce today will still be working 15 to 20 years from now. That is why “Tough Choices or Tough Times” addresses adult learning and the opportunity for continuous education. It all begins with an account for each child at birth, funded by the federal government with the single purpose of growing an individual fund that can only be used for education. Individuals, families, employers, states, and/or the federal government could contribute to the fund. This would provide for continuing education opportunities that are consistent with what you suggest, and the expectation that in the future people will change both jobs and careers much more frequently than in the past.
Question: Why are we looking at revamping education when U.S. industries are sending jobs overseas simply because it is cheaper? Has someone shown that foreign employees are better educated or trained? I think it is economics, not education.
Tucker: Offshoring started because people in other countries were available to do the work more cheaply than Americans were willing to do it. But that is not the case any longer. Now companies are going abroad for help because (1) they find it easier to find highly qualified people in certain job categories, (2) they want to be closer to established markets, (3) they want to be near emerging markets, and (4) they can get employees who are less expensive. It is generally a mix of these reasons, and the last one is not always in play.
Question: How do we get the leadership in the schools to understand that these changes are real, and that we must change or perish?
Payzant: We have to move from internal school, district, state, and national benchmarks to international ones. It is hard to change people’s beliefs without real evidence. It is always difficult to create a sense of urgency until the crisis takes place. The data are available now based on what is occurring elsewhere in the world. It is time to make changes in our system of education that will prepare our students today for what we know will happen 10 to 20 years from now. The evidence is more compelling with each passing year. Are we prepared to let the evidence modify our beliefs that are grounded in the past, to help us prepare all our students for a changing future? Let’s create the sense of urgency, not based on fear, but on evidence that with thoughtful change we can make a positive difference and maintain the standard of living and access to opportunity that every family wants for its children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and the kids next door.
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Preparing Students for Global Competition