Bad Guess on U.S. Future

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006; 12:32 PM

The two words most likely to make education reporters sigh wearily are "national" and "commission." Those of us who have been doing this for awhile know that many government, business and non-profit groups cannot resist the urge to gather great men and women together frequently to plan our schools' future. The result is almost always a great waste of time and paper.

So when "Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce" arrived in the mail, I was pretty sure I was not going to like it. These reports come in two varieties: those that belabor the obvious and those that ignore reality. "Tough Choices or Tough Times" falls into the second category, which means it has no more staying power than the chocolate pie I whipped up for yesterday's family Christmas dinner.

This is sad, in a way. The commission includes some of the giants of American education. Panel members such as former U.S. education secretaries Richard W. Riley and Rod Paige and former Boston school superintendent Thomas W. Payzant have helped make our schools significantly better. But like hundreds of powerful and brilliant people who have participated in well-intentioned commissions before them, they let themselves be talked into wandering through dreamland, rather than the real world.

Almost all the ideas in the report are worthy of support. Teachers salaries should be raised substantially to attract better recruits. Standardized tests should be rewritten to encourage creative thought. Independently operated public schools should be encouraged. Spending on low-income students should be increased.

The problem is the report's fanciful notion that it would be possible -- indeed, they say it is absolutely necessary -- to do all these things at once. The report's authors propose a grand scheme to save our schools and keep India and China from turning the United States into a low-wage economic backwater. They ignore the progress made by some of their own panel members and instead assert that none of the education innovations of the past 40 years have had much effect. "The reason that nothing has made much difference is that every time we tried to change something, we did not change much of anything else," they conclude.

Huh? Our schools need to be better, but it is also clear that they are providing the finest training in the world in just about every specialty you could name, and are giving the majority of Americans enough skills to support a middle-class lifestyle. We have gotten as far as we have by muddling along, attacking problems haphazardly, rejecting master plans, and using the liberties inherent in our political, economic and social systems to create new approaches that keep us moving forward. That is the way free enterprise democracies work.

The staff of the new (their italics) commission (hmm -- why do you suppose we don't remember much about the OLD commission's 1990 report) did splendid work studying school reform in other developed and developing countries. Then they went too far. They decided the best course was for the United States to copy methods they thought worked well overseas. They justified this with the usual scare treatment -- threats that the rise of the Indian and Chinese economies will ruin us if we don't do something quick.

I am not an international economist, to say the least. I had to struggle to get through Ec 1 my sophomore year of college. But I am a careful reader of the business and economic reporting of my newspaper, so I think I am qualified to ask two questions -- neither of which are answered in this report -- about those scary folk in south and east Asia.

Question one: Isn't the freedom and flexibility of American culture and politics, not the quality of our educational system, what has given us such power in the world? India appears to have adopted many of those freedoms and its people have a chance to be just as creative as we are. But I have spent much of my life studying China and I don't see any way that country is going to set its great culture free any time soon. The China brain drain will be in our favor until Beijing adopts democracy and human rights, and that will take a long time.

Question two: Even if both India and China do attain that potent blend of liberty and creativity, how exactly is that going to hurt Americans? Their economies are thriving because world commerce is losing its dependence on borders and tariffs, and the old way of thinking (accepted without question in this report) that if some poor countries get rich, then some rich countries, like us, are going to become poor. The experts on these issues that I find most persuasive point out that only countries cut off from the world economy, like North Korea, are declining, and that is because they are not globalized. Everyone else is discovering that the better off India and China and El Salvador and Tanzania become, the better off we all are. The more middle-class people overseas, the more customers there will be for the newest gizmos that our large and innovative middle-class country keeps coming up with.

So read the new report for its parts, not its whole. Rather than try to promote its report's grand scheme, the commission should let its panel members go back to doing what they are doing, making progress on some of the report's recommendations, like better teacher career paths and more independent public schools.

The only part of the report that should be rejected out of hand is its suggestion -- deeply influenced by practices abroad -- that we create two classes of high school students at age 16. Depending on their scores on standardized tests, one group would stay in high school and prepare for entry into selective colleges and the other group would go off to community college or trade schools.

The report's authors present this as a golden opportunity for high schools, community colleges and trade schools to improve, since they would compete for these students, and even the lower-scoring students would have a chance to go to four year colleges, if not the most selective ones, someday. That is an approach that would almost certainly blow up in our faces.

Forcing 16-year-olds and their families to make this major life decision, and basing it on a test, would be a return to the bad old days when we shoved minority kids into shop and home ec classes. Just when many high schools are finding ways to junk those stereotypes, and let all students develop the skills that would prepare them to make an intelligent decision about college, the commission runs the risk of aggravating the ugly class differences at the root of our education problems.

The report notes, correctly, that most of our public schools are not doing better because their students know there is not much penalty for mediocre effort. Most of them will still get into some college, or some job. Our economy gives them several chances to make up for youthful sloth.

If the report's authors' fears prove true, and American living standards begin to decline because of competition abroad and poor schooling, the U.S. education system will change very quickly. But we education reporters learned long ago that most national commissions are wrong. It is better to wait and let actual events, rather than well-staffed guesses, determine our next move.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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