Early Childhood

Major Overhaul of U.S. Education System Proposed by High-Powered Panel

By Lynn Olson — December 14, 2006 9 min read
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Teachers employed by states rather than districts. Schools no longer run by districts but by independent contractors. Teenagers who take exams at age 16 that permit them to enroll immediately in community or technical colleges. High-quality, early-childhood education made available to all 4-year-olds and all low-income 3-year-olds.

Those are just a few of the proposals for overhauling the U.S. education system contained in a new report, “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” released here today by a prominent panel whose members include state and local superintendents, former governors and mayors, business executives, and prior U.S. secretaries of education and labor.

An executive summary of “Tough Choices or Tough Times” is available from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.

The report, by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, comes 16 years after an earlier study that also recommended changes in public education to meet the needs of a global economy. But while the 1990 report, “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages!,” focused on competition from low-skill, low-wage workers around the globe, the new report argues that even highly skilled American workers now must compete against equally skilled, equally well-educated foreigners willing to work for a fraction of the cost.

“That’s a formulation in which there’s no place to hide,” said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy and the staff director for the commission. “This report basically says, if we don’t find a whole new formula, what we can confidently look forward to is a declining standard of living, probably not for everybody, but for most people. And that could create a kind of social instability that could be the undoing of the United States.”

But the report drew swift criticism from members of the education community. Anne Bryant, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said that except for the proposal for universal preschool, “All of the other recommendations don’t have any evidence. There’s no data that says, when you operationalize it, it’s going to work.” The American Federation of Teachers also praised the call for universal early-childhood education and for a system of rigorous high school exams based on a rich curriculum. But Antonia Cortese, the union’s executive vice president, described some of the commission’s other proposals as “seriously flawed ideas with faddish allure that won’t produce better academic results.”

‘Passport to a Good Job’

The commission asserts that to thrive in the new global marketplace demands constant innovation. Only nations that produce new products and services at a rapid clip will be able to charge high enough margins to pay high wages, with most routine work either done offshore or by machines. For the United States to prosper, it must both maintain its worldwide technological edge and produce workers with high levels of academic preparation and a deep vein of creativity.

“It is a world in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job,” the report asserts, “in which creativity and innovation are the key to the good life, in which high levels of education—a very different kind of education than most of us have had—are going to be the only security there is.”

The report draws on international comparisons to show that other countries are now surpassing the United States both in the quantity and quality of education their workers receive. Thirty years ago, for example, the United States had 30 percent of the world’s population of college students. Today, that proportion has fallen to 14 percent and is continuing to decline. And American students and young adults are now placing in the middle of the pack or worse on international studies of achievement in mathematics, science, and general literacy among advanced industrialized nations.

In that kind of climate, the commission asserts, what’s needed are not new educational programs and initiatives but a complete rethinking of the system, from birth to adulthood, to make it more productive and more efficient without greatly increased costs.

The commission estimates that its far-ranging proposals, when fully in place, would require $7.8 billion per year in new revenues. But that assumes significant cost savings—around $67 billion—that would not be realized until most students are prepared to leave high school at age 16 and enroll in college without remediation. The cost savings from having most students take two fewer years of high school is some $45 billion alone.

Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-director of the Washington-based Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank, nonetheless praised the report for not calling for substantial new spending. “It calls for reallocating existing resources,” he said, “and puts some pretty tough ideas on the table for doing that.”

‘Breathtaking Scope’

“The scope is somewhat breathtaking,” admitted John Engler, a commission member, former governor of Michigan, and current president of the National Association of Manufacturers. “It’s designed to create a vision of what could be.”

But he asserted that the plans are feasible, comparing it to state experiments with welfare reform in the early 1990s. In the beginning, he noted, governors who dared to take on that complex system “went through some pretty heavy seas, too. We had a lot of criticism and a lot of tut-tutting.”

Still, just as with welfare reform, he predicted, “I think there are going to be some governors who are going to take this up.”

At the heart of the commission’s plan is the creation of state board examinations that most students would take at age 16. Those who passed would automatically be admitted to state community or technical colleges; or, if their scores were high enough, could choose to stay in high school for two more years to take Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or similar programs that prepared them for advanced entry to selective four-year colleges and universities.

Some of the savings from having students leave high school earlier would be plowed back into investments—such as after-school tutoring and summer school—that would get most youngsters ready for college by the age of 16. More than $19 billion would be devoted to ensuring access to high-quality early-childhood education for all 4-year-olds and all low-income 3-year-olds to prepare them for schooling. The American testing industry would have to be overhauled to establish the kind of ambitious, syllabus-based exams that the commission envisions, which could test for such skills as the ability to work in teams, think in abstractions, or devise novel solutions to problems.

Revamped Teacher Plan

The report envisions a radically revamped teacher preparation, pay, and career-ladder system that would be designed to draw recruits from the top third of college graduates. “We clearly need very, very capable teachers,” said Mr. Tucker. “Our proposals would basically change what is now the median pay for teachers into the bottom of the scale … and the top of the scale would be far higher than it is now.”

To get there, the report advocates trimming back the pension and health benefits for retired teachers so that they are more comparable to those of the better firms in the private sector. The money saved would be used to increase compensation for beginning teachers to a national average of about $45,000 per year, and to pay those at the top of new career ladders roughly $95,000 per year, or as much as $110,000 per year if they were willing to work full-time and year round. (Those figures are an average for the nation as a whole; higher-cost states would have higher salary scales, while lower-cost states would pay less.)

Unlike now, teachers would be employed directly by the state on a statewide salary schedule, with salary increments for more effective teachers and those willing to teach in shortage fields or in hard-to-staff rural or urban areas. Teachers would be licensed by the state and put on a list of available teachers, but none would be paid until a school chose to hire them.

The current policies regarding teacher education would be scrapped. Instead, new Teacher Development Agencies, established by the states, would write performance contracts with a range of providers interested in preparing teachers, from schools of education to school districts. Those providers that met the state’s performance requirements would get a larger number of slots than providers whose graduates performed less well.

Contracting Out

School districts would contract with independent contractors to run schools, including partnerships of professional teachers, rather than operating them directly. The contract schools would be public schools, subject to all safety, curriculum, testing, and accountability requirements. But the schools would be funded directly by the states, according to a weighted per-pupil formula that paid more for certain students based on their needs.

Schools would have complete control over staff hiring, school organization and management, their program, and how their funds were spent, as long as they provided the curriculum and met state testing and accountability requirements. Each school would be affiliated with a helping organization, or network, approved by the state to provide technical assistance and other supports. Parents and students could choose among all the available contract schools.

Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, said the proposals largely mirror the work on contract schools that his organization has put forth over the past decade. “The argument made is exactly right,” he said. “We have to have a lot more innovation, a lot more performance pressure, and a lot more variety.”

The commission’s report adds value, he argued, by making the link to international competitiveness. “Our argument has always been about performance,” he said. “I think the job competitiveness issue brings it into focus in a very good way.”

But Ms. Bryant of the NSBA noted that, to the extent some schools are run under contract now, “it’s clear that they don’t always work. So there’s no evidence that suddenly rising like a phoenix out of the ashes, we’re going to have all these wonderful for-profit and nonprofit companies that are going to run schools.”

“You can call it a groundbreaking report,” she added, “but how much ground can you literally break before you rattle what’s currently working in an effort to fix what is not?”

To ensure that the current workforce is adequately prepared, the commission proposes what it calls a GI Bill for lifelong learning. Every adult would be entitled to a free education up to the new high school-leaving standard, essentially the ability to enter college without remediation. Through Personal Competitiveness Accounts, created for each child at birth by the federal government, and supplemented with $100 each year up to age 16, people would accumulate money for continued education and training. Individuals, parents, states, and employers could contribute to the accounts.

Federal legislation also would encourage states to establish regional authorities to combine economic development, adult education, and job training, guided by local and regional economic development goals.

“Not every member of this group is lined up behind every single feature of every recommendation,” noted Mr. Tucker, “and that wasn’t important to people. What they all said was, ‘If something like this doesn’t happen, we’re cooked.’ ”


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