A Revolution in School Reform

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Yesterday, the National Center on Education and the Economy released a report called “Tough Choices or Tough Times.” I don’t like reading reports very much. They are typically boring, and not enough pictures. This report is different. In fact, I think this is perhaps the most important education (and economy) report since “A Nation at Risk” back in 1983.

The Tough Choices report offers concrete suggestions on how to improve our K-12 and postsecondary systems and ultimately make our society more competitive globally. To my fellow Canadian colleagues, I hope you read on, because this should resonate greatly to you. As a former school teacher in the St. Vital School Division in Winnipeg, I see this meaning as much to Canada as it does to the US.

The report claims that, when the first national Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce reported in 1990, they had no idea that the off-shoring of jobs from the US would also include high-level, professional-level jobs. In 2006, we see that manufacturers are now using engineers in India, China, and South Korea, for instance, to fill technical needs. The only way that we are going to change this pattern, according to the commission, is to change how we educate students and adults. Our ability to compete:

…depends on a deep vein of creativity that is constantly renewing itself, and on a myriad of people who can imagine how people can use things that have never been available before, create ingenious marketing and sales campaigns, write books, build furniture, make movies, and imagine new kinds of software that will capture people’s imagination and become indispensable to millions. (Executive Summary, p. 6)

To reach this goal, the commission has offered 10 recommendations for action, which are perhaps the most bold of any recommendations that I’ve seen in a long time. And not only bold, but doable. I won’t cover them all here, but I will discuss a few of the main points.

The foundational point made by the report is that we don’t do education particularly well in the US, a point that has been buttressed by Bill Gates and others recently. The US system educates over 55 million public school students each year. That’s a lot of kids. But it does so in a systematic process developed for the coming of the industrial age in the early 20th century.

To that end, the commission recommends that the entire school system be revolutionized, incorporating Board tests at the 10th grade to “filter” students, changing the way public schools are funded and teachers are renumerated, and even changing the entire structure of oversight and responsibility for education.

For instance, the commission suggests instituting the 10th grade tests across the country, based on national standards in core course work, to determine whether students are prepared for postsecondary. The level of this assessment would assume a minimum competency for community college, such that students could matriculate to a community college upon passing the 10th-grade test. They suggest this based on the knowledge that other countries assume that their 16-year old students are ready for college. Students who pass could also stay in high school and work toward their second Board exams. If they score well enough on those, they would be allowed access to selective four-year institutions.

Of course, one instantly questions what this means for students who are below the margin in our current system. Would they not be forgotten? The commission has thought of that issue, and suggests that if their recommendations are followed, 95 percent of students should pass the first Board test. Their support includes revamping the school funding process by making it a state — not a local — issue, and dispersing funds through a formula to where funds are most needed. This makes a lot of sense, because the current system is terribly antiquated.

Most interesting is their tact on teaching. The commission recommends that salaries for teachers be massively improved, with starting salaries of about $45,000 and top salaries above $95,000. Where does the money come from? Again, the commission stresses that if their recommendations are followed, the system can afford to do this and other interventions.

The salary issue is important. As a former teacher who has taught with wonderful teachers on both sides of the 49th parallel, I also understand that many teachers just shouldn’t be there. The report acknowledges that school systems are “recruiting more of our teachers from the bottom third of the high school students going to college than is wise. To succeed, we must recruit many more from the top third.” And that’s tough to do. Unless salary and professionalism can be increased, “professionals,” in the true sense of the word, will not enter the education field.

The only problem I have with the report is a recommendation to take schools away from local authority and have them awarded to independent contractors. That hasn’t worked well where it’s been implemented, and I shudder to think what would happen with 110,000 schools in the US under total independent control. We’d have a charter school on every corner, and one only look as far as the track record of charter schools (for those who don’t know, it isn’t too pretty).

The report also offers something I’ve supported and mentioned for years: having the federal government create a savings account for every baby in the US. They suggest starting a $500 account for the child, which of course would compound over time, and allow for employer tax-free contributions. Makes a lot of sense. It won’t solve the woes of college costs, but it will help immensely and get people, all people, thinking about postsecondary education.

It’s about time we start talking about real changes in elementary and secondary education, because we have punted on the issue for years. The cynic in me says that the recommendations in this report will never happen. Perhaps we need to bring James Baker in for his blessing. But I am hopeful that much of this will resonate with policymakers and practitioners, and that we can get away from partisan bickering and the barriers often put up by special interests.

Bottom line: this is a report worth reading. To download the executive summary, click here.

Have a great weekend.

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