Needed: A governor to launch radical change in schools

What the Iraq Study Group said about the Iraq War situation -- "grim and deteriorating" -- has been echoed by another bipartisan commission, this one studying the state of American education.

It didn't use those exact words, but the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce warned that unless U.S. schools are improved radically, the country's standard of living will plunge over the next 20 years.

The commission, whose members included four former Cabinet officers, proposed a series of radical and most likely controversial changes designed to keep the United States from falling behind foreign competitors.

The reforms mainly require action at the state level, and one gutsy governor will be needed to start the process and serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

As this study and numerous other reports on competitiveness have warned, other countries -- led by India and China -- increasingly are offering the world's employers highly skilled work forces at lower costs than American labor, causing jobs and investment to move offshore.

The only reason that employers would depend on Americans, the panel said, is "if we could offer something that the Chinese and Indians, and others, cannot."

That has to be superior skills, know-how, technology and innovation, yet U.S. schools -- the second costliest in the world per pupil -- badly lag behind in performance on international tests.



Moreover, the panel said, while spending on U.S. schools has increased by 240 percent over the past 30 years (adjusting for inflation), national test scores in reading and math have improved only marginally.

Unlike the Iraq Study Group, which tended to split differences between Republicans and Democrats in order to achieve consensus on what to do in Iraq, the 26-member skills panel agreed unanimously on what its executive director called "a complete shakeup" in U.S. education.

The recommendations include ending high school for most students at age 16, after 10th grade. Students passing a state-run exam that meets national standards would move on to community colleges or job training. Others who pass would stay in high school for Advance Placement or International Baccalaureate work leading to admission to four-year colleges. Those who failed the test would return to high school until they passed.

The money saved by lopping off the last two years of high school -- $60 billion a year -- would be used to double teacher salaries and fund pre-school for all 4-year-olds and all low-income 3-year-olds.

In order to attract teachers from the top third of college graduates, starting pay would average $45,000 a year -- a level that is currently the mid-career national average -- and then rise to $95,000, with possible increases up to $110,000 for teachers who work year-round or in demanding situations.

Commissioners emphasized that cutting out 11th and 12th grade for most students was more than just a money-saving measure -- it also was based on findings that most students who drop out do so because they find school "boring." Also, some European countries end formal school at 16.

The benefit of pre-school education for getting children prepared for academic work -- and to narrow income inequalities -- has been demonstrated in study after study.

Possibly the most radical change would be a takeover by states of supervision and funding of schools, thus eliminating reliance on local property taxes, although community school boards would retain some management functions.

The commission, which included New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, former Cabinet Secretaries William Brock, Richard Riley, Ray Marshall and Rod Paige, and union and corporate representatives, also advocated creation of teacher-organized "contract schools" that would be run independently and judged on their ability to meet state standards.

Another proposal would create "personal competitiveness accounts" of $500 for every child that could be added to by the federal government or individuals to fund training and re-training throughout a worker's lifetime.

The panel also recommended a significant upgrading of testing standards at the state level so that 16-year-olds would have to possess world-class skills in order to graduate from high school.

Various groups, including the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, advocate national testing standards to replace inadequate state standards established under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

The foundation's president, Chester Finn, said at an all-day conference sponsored by the skills panel last week that it succeeded in "making practically every interest group unhappy."

Indeed, the National School Boards Association attacked the report, entitled "Tough Choices for Tough Times," because it de-emphasized local control. The American Federation of Teachers objected to the call for "front-loading" teacher compensation -- that is, raising pay -- in return for conversion of guaranteed pensions to investment accounts.

Probably the most difficult group to convince about the need for change is the American citizenry, which has repeatedly told pollsters that American education in general is deficient but that the school system in their jurisdiction is successful.

On the other hand, there is widespread agreement that middle-class incomes are being squeezed by foreign competition. One answer to the problem -- a bad one that won't work -- is an isolationist attempt to protect the United States from foreign competition.

The better answer, and the only one that will work, is for the United States to lead the world in innovation and skills. That would require that U.S. schools be the best in the world, which they aren't.

One state has to lead the way toward excellence. Which one will it be?

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