Panel Outlines Radical Overhaul of American Education
> 12/15/2006 12:21:28 PM

Most with a cursory knowledge of America's place in the global economy realize that we are in the midst of an expanding labor crisis: outsourcing and globalization, far from political buzzwords, are contributing in large part to the continued decline of the United States' status as economic leader of the industrial world. And as every single education expert has surmised, particularly over the last fifteen years, our school systems are not sufficiently preparing American kids to compete in this changing workplace both here and abroad. With an exponential increase in workers willing to perform demanding jobs for less money and the automation of many more low-skilled positions, our kids are not performing up to par in the subjects that matter most: science, math, and general literacy. If we don't adapt, future generations will have fewer options for well-paying jobs and our status as an economic leader will be a thing of the past. Our current setup, where most high school and many college students do as little work as they can to earn a degree, is not going to help the problem. We need major changes, and we need them now.

In response to this enormous challenge in the intertwining worlds of education and labor, an expert panel of education experts called The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce was convened, and they released a summary of their findings and recommendations this week. A cursory read of the public document is enlightening. Some of their most basic assertions, reported in the Times, are simple but potentially revolutionary: starting school for kids at age 3, requiring board exams for students to pass high school, and offering, if not directly requiring, federally supported post-secondary school programs for all graduates. These plans could take the form of technical or community college, while all qualifying students would be encourage to move on to private or public universities. Those students who score high enough on another set of board exams would be guaranteed a place as juniors at state schools. But preparing younger generations is not enough. Continuing ed for working adults is also a major area of concern as many of their skills will grow increasingly obsolete.

Another central element of the report is tighter control over teacher quality. We currently accept many students from the lower tiers of college performance to teach because we do not believe that we have another choice. The plan proposes choosing students who score in the highest third of their high school classes and priming them for careers in education. In another idea that mirrors certain aspects of No Child Left Behind, we should reward teachers for excellence and efficiency rather than tenure and time served. We should, in fact, create an agency specifically designed to find and develop new teachers. If they are not satisfactory, we should take steps to remove them, no matter how long they have held their positions.

The panel's document includes a number of other large scale revisions, such as increasing state oversight of school districts, creating an entirely new testing format, and considering investment and participation by private contractors, that are too complex to be summarized here. Everyone interested in the future of education would be well advised to read over the relatively brief document and consider the impressive resumes of all involved. Professionals and observers will take issue with some proposals and approve of others, but the release should, at the very least, contribute to the ongoing multi-party dialogue about reforming our education system on every level. The plan may not be instituted in full. It may take decades to develop. And it will certainly create conflicts on the state, local, and federal levels. But it is the most comprehensive study to date, and it can serve as a starting point for more thorough developments in the near future. We can only move forward from here.

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