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MISSION CRITICAL: Senate HELP Committee Examines Key Role That a Quality Education Plays in America’s Competitiveness

"What our children and grandchildren learn today will determine America's productivity in the future, and that depends on preparing them to compete in a global marketplace more competitive than at any other time in history."

During a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing on March 8, senators from both political parties stressed the importance of additional education after high school to landing a good job in today’s economy, but they noted that the American education system was preparing far too few students to achieve it. The hearing, “The Key to America’s Global Competitiveness: A Quality Education,” also featured business leaders, economists, and education experts who discussed how to solve the challenges facing the American education system and how doing so could power the American economy for generations.

“What our children and grandchildren learn today will determine America’s productivity in the future, and that depends on preparing them to compete in a global marketplace more competitive than at any other time in history,” said Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) in his opening statement. “But while globalization and technology have dramatically increased the skills and qualifications required to succeed today, our schools are largely geared toward the assumptions of a twentieth-century workplace.”

Harkin spent a significant portion of his opening statement discussing the link between higher education and a quality job. He observed that the path into the middle class is “more than ever” linked to a worker’s level of education attainment, but he said “this critical door to the middle class does not swing equally wide for everyone.” He noted that the college graduation rate of American youths from families in the top quarter of the income distribution increased by 21 percentage points between the late 1970s and the mid 1990s, but it increased by only 4 percentage points for children from families in the lowest quartile of income distribution during the same time.

In his opening statement, Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), top Republican on the HELP Committee, outlined two major challenges facing the United States. First, a growing number of jobs require additional education after high school; and second, other countries continue to surpass the United States in proportion of workers with at least a high school diploma.

Enzi noted that about 7,000 students drop out of high school every day while many of those who do graduate often must take remedial courses when they enter college. “This lack of preparation means that our college students spend more time and money paying tuition just to catch up,” Enzi said. “It’s hard for them and it’s hard for our country to get ahead if we’re playing catch-up. … Among minority students, remedial course participation rates are even higher and completion rates are even lower.”

In her testimony, witness Jennifer Mann, vice president of human resources for SAS, which specializes in business analytics software and services, discussed the difficulty SAS faces in hiring workers with the skills it needs. She said SAS seeks to hire individuals with deep analytical expertise in statistics, operations research, and econometrics, as well as “softer” skills, such as relationship skills, collaboration, critical thinking, and being self-directed learners. Mann mentioned some of SAS’s efforts to attract workers and better prepare students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Mann also discussed the important role the common core state standards (CCSS) will play in helping the United States improve its education system. “SAS believes that the CCSS presents a chance to catch up with other countries that are outperforming the U.S.,” she said. “This is a critical step in preparing our students for the global economy, and a step that the business community can and should fully support.”

Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development (CED), a nonpartisan, business-led public policy organization based in Washington, DC, said that investments in human capital would determine how productive and competitive the United States is in the global economy. To that end, he discussed CED’s work considering education spending as an investment that “asks tough accountability-oriented questions about the returns on these investments.” He noted that, until recently, America’s postsecondary education system has avoided the accountability questions that characterize K-12 education policy discussions. Kolb also previewed an April 2012 report that focuses on ways in which greater innovation, productivity, and efficiency could drive needed reforms across the postsecondary sector.

In his testimony, Eric A. Hanushek, Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, outlined two potential paths for the lives of American children and the United States’s future place in the world economy. On the current path, the nation will continue to have “middling” schools and moderate real income growth, which will lead to “increasing struggles and discord over the income distribution and how to spend our limited public budgets,” Hanushek said. On a different path, one with better-educated children, international economic leadership, and a faster growing economy, Hanushek said the United States could “solve our fiscal and distributional problems not with battles over the balance of revenues and spending but by ensuring that the pie grows.”

According to Hanushek, raising American students’ math performance to the level of Canadian students on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) would have a present value of $75-80 trillion. To put those numbers into perspective, Hanushek said the United States’s economy has a total gross domestic product of less than $16 trillion.

“Nearly all of today’s policy debates focus narrowly on pulling out of the current downturn in the economy,” Hanushek said. “But frankly, the importance of dealing with this-and I realize its importance to many families today-is simply dwarfed by the long-run growth of the economy. This focus on today may serve short-term political interests during this election year, but it neglects our children and their future.”

The final witness, Richard Murnane, Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, discussed school and educator reform strategies to ensure that more students graduate college and career ready. He noted that schools effectively educating disadvantaged children provide extra instruction and learning opportunities after traditional school hours, on Saturdays, and during the summer months. He said high schools effectively serving disadvantaged students “provide the learning opportunities in workplaces and in other nonschool settings and the cultural experiences and tutoring that affluent parents provide to their teenagers.”

Murnane said “capacity building, including high-quality academic standards, curricula aligned with the standards, and professional development aimed at improving the quality and consistency of instruction” should be paired with incentives and accountability to help the nation’s educators to ensure all students graduate from high school college and career ready. He added that results from value-added models should not solely be used to dismiss or reward teachers, but they should be used to identify teachers whose students are making relatively great-or relatively little-academic progress. These results should then be paired with other methods, including classroom observation by well-trained coaches or supervisors, to “figure out the cause of the atypical performance.”

Witness testimony and video of the hearing is available at

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.