A Call to Action for Our Schools

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If Americans want to maintain their customary high standard of living in today's global economy, we've got to rethink almost every aspect of our education system, including when kids finish high school and who runs our schools. That was the conclusion of a blistering report from a blue-ribbon panel called the New Commission on Skills of the American Workforce, released Thursday in an all-day event in Washington, D.C. The commission of heavyweights included four former cabinet secretaries, the president of the American Manufacturers Association, the chancellor of the California State University system, executives from Viacom Inc. and Lucent Technologies, and other government and education leaders. Its call-to-action report, entitled Tough Choices or Tough Times, cites studies showing that the U.S. share of the world's college-educated workers has shrunk from 30% to 15% in recent decades and that, even after all the outsourcing of the past decade, some 20% of U.S. jobs remain vulnerable to automation or offshoring to educated workers overseas.

"Increasingly the work of the world is going to be non-routine work, and that changes everything," says Marc Tucker, vice chairman of the commission and president of the National Center for Education and the Economy in Washington. "To be competitive the kids coming out of our high schools are going to have to match the best performance worldwide in the core subjects and excel in creative and innovative skills."

While the report calls for some new investment in education, it argues that most of its proposals can be accomplished simply by reallocating the huge amount of money we're already spending on public schools — about $9,000 a year per K-12 pupil on average, according to the report, the world's second highest figure.

The commission's suggested fix would involve these big changes:

*Most kids should finish high-school-level work by age 16 and be prepared to tackle college or trade-oriented higher education. The commission proposes that the states introduce State Board Examinations, more rigorous and more thorough than most of today's state tests. Once a child passes the state exam — at 16, 17 or whenever — they could move on to higher ed. This change, the commission estimates, would free up some $60 billion in schools funds to be invested more wisely.

*To attract high-caliber people into the teaching profession, a new career ladder should be introduced that raises pay for new teachers and includes rising rungs of merit pay. The report proposes to pay for these changes by phasing out today's lavish teacher retirement packages and moving toward benefits that more closely match those in private industry.

*To introduce more competition, diversity and dynamism to the nation's schools, the commission proposes that schools be run by independent contractors — in some cases groups of teachers — who agree to meet requirements set and measured by the district or else lose the contract. Parents would choose the school their child attends.

*To equalize resources between rich and poor communities, the report recommends that school districts be directly funded by the state, receiving funds according to the needs of their student populations rather than the property taxes of the local community.

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