In case you missed it amidst the just-ended orgy of merry consumerism, you might find it worthwhile to go back and give yourself a real holiday present. Pick up a copy of “Tough Choices or Tough Times.” The 170-page report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce lays out America’s options in terms as stark as its title. (Get the free executive summary: http://skillscommission.org/pdf/exec_sum/ToughChoices_EXECSUM.pdf) To be sure, this new report from the nonprofit and nonpartisan National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) carries all the standard and valid alarms we’ve grown so familiar with since “A Nation at Risk” hit the street way back in 1983. But this report is not just another clarion call for education reform.
In fact, it doesn’t call for systemic reform at all, but systemic replacement. We should pitch out the whole creaky system of K-12 education, its authors assert: “A system that pursues the wrong goals more efficiently is not a system this nation needs.”
Warns the report: “If we continue on the current course, and the number of nations outpacing us in the education race continues to grow at its current rate, the American standard of living will steadily fall relative to those nations, rich and poor, that are doing a better job. If the gap gets to a certain–but unknowable–point, the world’s investors will conclude that they can get a greater return on their funds elsewhere, and it will be almost impossible to reverse course.”
Instead this report proposes, among other radical moves, having schools operated as independent contractors, giving states rather than local school boards direct control over school financing, paying teachers for performance rather than seniority, trimming teachers’ retirement benefits so as to boost their salaries to an average of $100,000 per year.
“Many of our teachers are superb,” notes the report. “But we have for a long time gotten better teachers than we deserved because of the limited opportunities for women and minorities in our workforce.” Now, that’s changing, the authors contend.
The report also addresses our current system of standards, assessments, and curricula. Excellence in core subjects is a must. But a glaring omission, the panel declares, is that our current tests do little or nothing to measure the qualities that “may spell the difference between success and failure for the students who will grow up to be the workers of 21st century America: creativity and innovation, facility with the use of ideas and abstractions, the self-discipline and organization needed to manage one’s work and drive it through to a successful conclusion, the ability to function well as a member of a team, and so on.” Moving to such measures, the report points out, “will entail a major overhaul of the American testing industry. If that is not done, then nothing else will matter, because the old saw that what gets measured is what gets taught is essentially true.”
Beyond mere hand wringing, however, this report provides an actual prescription to cure what ails education. The report offers a clear, if controversial, 10-step program to retire an education system designed for the Nineteenth Century and replace it with something suitable for the global economy and the age of technology.
Still more remarkable: The report does not call for more money. Rather than seeking an influx of new funding, this report calls for redeploying some $60 billion already in the system, and putting those existing dollars to what the authors say is far better use. Now, $60 billion is a lot of money–equivalent to about five months’ of spending on Iraq–but it won’t be money alone that stands in the way of bringing these recommendations to life. Both major teacher unions as well as the National School Boards Association already have warned against hasty implementation of the NCEE plan.
Finding the political will to implement change as drastic as what’s proposed in “Tough Choices or Tough Times” might be just the tough love we need for American education.
Anything’s possible. Given the stature of this report’s authors, we just might implement these steps or ones like them–before it’s too late. But, of course, if proposals were Porsches, beggars would drive.