Seeking a New Skills Revolution

December 15, 2006

Starting in the 1980’s, a worldwide market of low-skill labor began draining jobs overseas, threatening the wages of Americans. In response, the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce -- a bipartisan group of business, government, and education leaders -- laid out a plan in 1990 for the United States. The group suggested that the country focus its economy on high end products and services to keep wages from declining. On Thursday, the commission released a new report, "Tough Choices or Tough Times," which is calling for a complete revamping of the educational system to ensure that America can remain a global leader. Because these changes affect  so many aspects of the educational system -- college admissions, teachers' unions, and the funding of local school districts -- members of the commission acknowledge that they face an uphill battle.

Two major components of the report would most directly affect higher education. First, the commission has called for a state agency to handle all recruiting of teachers, focusing on grabbing college students from the top-third, instead of the bottom third as currently happens, usually without any recruitment. Further, this agency would control all funds for teaching education, and would have the power to give out those dollars to institutions that graduate high-performing teachers. Second, high school would be dramatically altered by allowing students to apply to college once they have passed a board exam, probably at age 16 .

“Our aim is to get most of the kids ready for college by 16 as happens in most Scandinavian countries,” said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which published the report.

Of students who have taken the exam at 16, the commission members expect 35 percent of students to then go on to a two-year program that is equivalent to an international baccalaureate, or advanced European high school degree. After the two years, these students would then apply to selective universities. The other 60 percent would enter a two-year community college or technical college, and then take another exam to qualify for entrance to a four-year institution. Of course, some students would fail out and then enter the work force, but Tucker said the outcome would be much better than current standards where almost one third of Americans do not complete high school.

“We’re shooting for a 5 percent dropout rate, versus around 33 percent which is what we have today,” he said. The country will not succeed unless everyone has at least two years of college by age 18. Tucker added that this new plan gets at least 95 percent of the population ready for a college by age 18, with many kids ready before that.

“The community college system is the most adaptive in higher education,” said Paul Elsner, a commission member and former chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District. “Still, I think they are going to be in shock by this.”

The commission calculates huge savings -- $67 billion -- for the country’s educational system both from sending kids to college at a younger age, but also by cutting down on the need for costly remedial education. One place they plan to reinvest these dollars is teacher training.

Taking a cue from the British, the commission asks for states to set up an agency that will handle teacher recruitment and manage state money for teacher training. Tucker said that the agency would try to draw teachers from the top one-third of college graduates instead of the bottom third as happens now. Perhaps most controversial, the plan calls for the agency to send money only to institutions that have a proven track record for turning out quality teachers.

Charles Reed, a member of the commission and the chancellor of the California State University System , said that he was not put off by this suggestion. The system he runs trains most of the teachers in California. “I like competition. I think we can prove ourselves. Performance counts.” Reed said that he approves of the plan and hopes that it will be passed.

“It won’t work if you cherry-pick sections of it, because it will fall apart,” said Elsner.  “I think it will be tough, but it will probably have to be done.”

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