Report: U.S. Schools Need Radical Fixes

By: - December 15, 2006 12:00 am

Some students would go to community college after 10 th grade, local schools would be run by private contractors, and teachers’ salaries would shoot up as high as ,000 but their pensions would be slashed under a new set of recommendations likely to shake up the U.S. education system.

A report released Thursday (Dec. 14) by the bipartisan Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce calls for a dramatic overhaul of the K-12 education system in the face of fierce global competition, and the most radical of the proposals are sure to draw fire.

“It’s controversial,” said commission member and former Michigan Gov. John Engler at a news conference. “Some of the recommendations are going to get a pushback.”

The 26-member commission, which includes two former U.S. education secretaries, two former governors, chancellors of major school systems, and experts from the nonprofit and business worlds, was set up last year by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE), a nonprofit group that pushes for higher education standards to improve the economy.

The commission is the second of the same name. In 1990 the first commission released a report similarly detailing the failings of American education, and its influence helped advance the standards movement that culminated in the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which became law in 2002.

“The report makes a compelling case for the need to raise standards and to enrich the quality of education … far beyond the level that NCLB is promoting currently,” said Thomas Toch, who worked at the NCEE for two years and is now the co-director of Education Sector , a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

One recommendation would set up tough exams for students to take at the end of 10 th grade. Top scorers would remain in high school to prepare for a more rigorous test and, eventually, a selective university. Students who score lower but still pass could go straight to community college.

Shrinking the size of high schools would free up billion, the report estimates. It suggests the savings be divided among three projects: universal pre-K for 4-year-olds; state weighted-student funding, with per-pupil funding increases for students needing more help; and dramatic pay increases for teachers to attract the top third of high school students into the education field.

But teachers unions already have come out against one way the commission proposes to increase pay: by cutting the generous retirement benefits their members currently get.

“It is shortsighted to call for salary programs that increase teacher pay but deplete retirement benefits,” said National Education Association president Reg Weaver in a statement. “Our nation’s teachers deserve to be well-compensated now, and they deserve the safety and security of retirement plans that will not leave them destitute in their later years.”

Another recommendation would restructure how schools are managed. Each school would be run by independent contractors, such as limited-liability corporations owned by teachers, the report proposed. Schools would control spending and management, while school districts would monitor the contractors’ performance.

Other proposals include educating adults already in the workforce to at least high school level, and creating personal accounts into which the government would give each baby at birth to be used for school. More money could be contributed by family, employers and states.

One question is how successful the commission will be in getting states to implement its recommendations. Toch said that the 1990 report also included the notion of a 10 th -grade “gatekeeping” exam.

“So it’s a reasonable question to ask how widely has that concept been implemented in the last 16 years, and answer is, not very widely at all,” he said.

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