Education Reform Proposals from the “New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce”

Time magazine’s cover story announcing the idiosyncratic choice of “You” as the 2006 Person of the Year is receiving the requisite amount of media and water cooler attention. However, the Time cover story on education reform from the previous week contains more ideas of substance likely to be remembered in the long run. In its reporting, Time summarized a number of recommendations put forth by a body called The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. (I wonder what happened to the old commission?)
The first recommendation is quite radical…

  • Most kids should finish high-school-level work by age 16 and be prepared to tackle college or trade-oriented higher education. The commission proposes that the states introduce State Board Examinations, more rigorous and more thorough than most of today’s state tests. Once a child passes the state exam — at 16, 17 or whenever — they could move on to higher ed. This change, the commission estimates, would free up some $60 billion in schools funds to be invested more wisely.
The next two recommendations have been around for a while, but are only slowly being tried due to opposition from, well, let’s call them “entrenched interests” (in other words, it’s not just the unions blocking these measures; municipal bureaucracies don’t want any big changes either)…
  • To attract high-caliber people into the teaching profession, a new career ladder should be introduced that raises pay for new teachers and includes rising rungs of merit pay. The report proposes to pay for these changes by phasing out today’s lavish teacher retirement packages and moving toward benefits that more closely match those in private industry.
  • To introduce more competition, diversity and dynamism to the nation’s schools, the commission proposes that schools be run by independent contractors — in some cases groups of teachers — who agree to meet requirements set and measured by the district or else lose the contract. Parents would choose the school their child attends.
After that, disappointingly, we hit the standard euphemism for raising taxes and/or cutting programs in communities with good school systems in order to further subsidize communities with failing school systems…
  • To equalize resources between rich and poor communities, the report recommends that school districts be directly funded by the state, receiving funds according to the needs of their student populations rather than the property taxes of the local community.
And two more recommendations round out the set…
  • All states would make high-quality pre-kindergarten programs available to all.
  • To enable workers of all ages to adapt to a rapidly evolving economy, the federal government would create tax-protected “personal competitiveness accounts” — “a G.I. Bill for our times,” in the words of the report — that could be drawn upon for education and training at any point in life. At birth, the feds would deposit $500 per child into the account.
With it’s focus on actual education reform, the New Commission program is the diametric opposite of the plans put forth by organizations like the National Education Association of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals who assert that in preparing the next generation for the future, the existing structure of public education needs little change and that education reform should be less of a priority than increasing spending on non-educational social services programs. With different factions beginning from such polar opposites, the question is how do we prevent education reform (if it hasn’t already) from following the path of energy policy reform – something oft-talked about where nothing serious is ever done?
Finally, let me express one concern about the New Commission. This is how Time described its composition…
The commission of heavyweights included four former cabinet secretaries, the president of the American Manufacturers Association, the chancellor of the California State University system, executives from Viacom Inc. and Lucent Technologies, and other government and education leaders.
Assuming that description is accurate, then the interests of teachers, business, and public bureaucracies all seem to have been well represented in the New Commission’s work. But who was there to represent the interests of parents and students?

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