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TOUGH CHOICES OR TOUGH TIMES: New Commission Recommends Radical Changes to American Education System

“This is a world in which a very high level of preparation in reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, science, literature, history, and the arts will be an indispensable foundation for everything that comes after for most members of the workforce.”

In 1990, the first Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce warned that globalization of the world’s economy would send low-skilled jobs to countries where the price of low-skill labor was the cheapest. The commission was right. Today, people in India and in other foreign countries solicit us for credit cards and walk us through glitches on our computers.

Rather than competing with these countries for low-wage jobs in a contest that the United States could never win, the 1990 commission advised the nation to abandon low-skill work. Instead, it argued, the nation should focus on educating our students and workers to achieve high levels because only countries with highly skilled workforces could successfully compete.

Last month, however, a report from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce reports that the first commission got its forecast only half right. The 1990 commission did not anticipate the trend of outsourcing or automating higher-paying jobs that demand high-level skills, as well. The report, Tough Choices or Tough Times, explains that China, India, and other countries have large numbers of highly educated workers who are willing to work for lower wages. Why would a company pay an American engineer $45,000 a year if it could get someone in India to do the same job for $7,500 a year? Such is the basic question that the new commission, which was organized by the National Center on Education and the Economy and is composed of former Cabinet secretaries, governors, college presidents, and business, civic and labor leaders, seeks to answer in its new report.

Dramatic Overhaul of American Education System Required

The commission concludes that the United States’ only chance to retain its competitive position is if it can offer companies highly educated, highly skilled workers and an important additional element: creativity. In the report’s prototypical world for the United States in the twenty-first century, Americans will supply the creative work for developing, marketing, and selling the most important products and services while the rest of the work will be done by people in less developed countries or by machines. But to reach this goal, the commission argues, the nation cannot simply place a Band-Aid on its current education system. Instead, it recommends a complete and total overhaul that will require tough decisions and radical thinking.

“This is a world in which a very high level of preparation in reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, science, literature, history, and the arts will be an indispensable foundation for everything that comes after for most members of the workforce,” the report reads. “It is a world in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the key to a good life, in which high levels of education—a very different kind of education than most of us have had—are going to be the only security there is.”

Unfortunately, our current education system is not up to the task. Among the limitations that the report lists are a teacher pool that disproportionately comes from among the less able of the high school students who go to college, growing income inequality, a lack of motivation among most American students, a teacher compensation system designed to reward tenure rather than performance, and a lack of continuing education.

In response, the commission—which also says that the problem is not with educators, but rather with the system in which they work—recommends ten steps to improve the nation’s educational system and student outcomes, and demonstrates that the costs of reforms would be paid for by the restructuring. Recommendations include recruiting and training a teaching force that comes from the top third of the high school students going to college; building a high-quality early education system for every three- and four-year-old child; and providing the nation’s disadvantaged students with the resources they need in order to meet new standards and graduate from high school. The commission calls for the creation of high-performing schools and districts everywhere—an undertaking that would require changes to the way the American education system is governed, financed, organized, and managed.

To address the reality that most of the people who will be in our workforce for the next twenty years are already in the workforce, it recommends that federal legislation be passed to entitle every adult and young worker—at no charge—to a quality education supported by a system of new board exam standards. Other recommendations include the creation of personal competitiveness accounts—“a G.I. Bill for our times”—that would allow individuals to save for tuition at any accredited institution for a work-related program of study; that the government provide $500 to every newborn baby and continue to contribute at a lower level until the person reaches the age of sixteen; and the creation of regional competitiveness authorities that would coordinate the work of the region’s education and training institutions to make sure that each region’s workers develop the skills necessary to succeed in the labor market.

“If we actually do these things,” the report maintains, “there is every reason to believe that we can send almost everyone to college and have them do well there.” Conversely, the report argues, “If we continue on our 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.”

An executive summary of the report and information on how to order the full report are available at

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