NASAA Notes: March 2007


March issue
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March 26, 2007

Executive Director's Column

Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce is the title of a report from the National Center on Education and the Economy, produced after a research project of almost two years was conducted in 14 countries by 19 staff. Dr. Susan Sclafani, a member of the Commission and formerly Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education and Counselor to the Secretary of Education, recently presented the premises and recommendations of this report to the Steering Committee of the Arts Education Partnership.

I value the presentation and the report enough to summarize them with you here, because (1) they seem to me to represent the scope of systemic change–not tinkering–necessary to address what everyone acknowledges are the serious problems confounding the current system of education in the U.S., (2) they place appropriate emphasis on the imaginative competencies a 21st-century education system must provide in a global work place and they understand learning in the arts as integral in that provision, and (3) they assign appropriate responsibilities to levels of government and the other sectors, understanding the special responsibility for education at the state level that is a tenet of U.S. public policy. I hope NOTES readers will find the following outline useful in shaping and positioning the policies they will advance related to the role of arts learning in education.

Research findings cited in this report support the assertion that American product development and innovation will be less and less competitive globally as a result of the current, outmoded, education system. Premium wages and jobs at every skill level will go to workforces capable of maintaining a lead in technology and “the new industries that new technologies generate.” But, the Commission argues, technological skill alone is insufficient to maintain such a lead:

It 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.

For what kind of business world must our education prepare us?

A world in which routine work is largely done by machines is a world in which mathematical reasoning will be no less important than math facts, in which line workers who cannot contribute to the design of the products they are fabricating may be as obsolete as the last model of that product, . . . in which software engineers who are also musicians and artists will have an edge over those who are not as the entertainment industry evolves . . . .

What kind of workers will employers the world over be looking for–and willing to pay premium wages?

Strong skills in English, mathematics, technology, and science, as well as literature, history, and the arts will be essential for many; beyond this, candidates will have to be comfortable with ideas and abstractions, good at both analysis and synthesis, creative and innovative, self-disciplined and well organized, able to learn very quickly and work well as a member of a team and have the flexibility to adapt quickly to frequent changes in the labor market as the shifts in the economy become ever faster and more dramatic.

The Commission argues further that the current American education system is not designed to produce a workforce competitive in a dynamic, highly technological, global environment. Basic problems they cite include:

  • too many teachers come from among the less capable students who go to college
  • we invest too little in early education and try to repair damage later when the cost is much greater
  • growing inequality in family incomes is contributing to growing student achievement gaps
  • teacher compensation typically rewards time in service, rather than providing an incentive for good students to choose teaching, or for teachers who demonstrate the best teaching
  • our testing system rewards routine work skills, rather than analytic, creative and innovative thinking
  • workers have few adaptive resources

The Commission believes American education must be standards-based, but radically changed in ten basic ways, among which are:

  • Design and implement a system of Board Examinations available to students when they are ready, usually beginning at the end of 10th grade. Standards will be no lower than what is needed to enter community college in the state without remedial instruction. Passing guarantees the right to at least two years of college; failure is never terminal–the test can always be taken again.
  • Redesign teacher rewards to recruit primarily from the top third of college students. Pensions and healthcare approximate private sector plans and the savings are used to support salary levels and work loads ranging from an average of $45,000 at entry for a regular teaching year to $110,000 for top-of-career, year-round work. Teachers are employed by the state. Salary increments reward effectiveness, teaching in remote or tough urban schools, and teaching subjects with instructor shortages. School creation by teachers is encouraged, like medical or legal practices.
  • Develop standards, assessments and curricula that reflect the needs for creativity and innovation, use of ideas and abstractions, individual and team work skills, and adaptability. Instructional materials, testing and teacher preparation are redesigned to support the new standards and assessments.
  • Create high-performance schools and districts. Radically change the school board role to overseeing schools operated by independent contractors, many of which would be “limited-liability corporations owned and run by teachers.” Among school board responsibilities are fostering relationships between schools and social services. Schools are funded directly by the state and have completely independent management and budget authority within state curriculum, testing and other accountability requirements.
  • Provide universal, high-quality education for 3- and 4-year olds.
  • Give strong support to the students who need it the most. Schools stay open from early in the morning until late in the evening, offering a wide range of health, social, counseling and learning services and drawing upon community resources. The state funding formula and teacher pay incentives ensure that the services available to low-income and otherwise disadvantaged populations are comparable with those available to those who are wealthier.
  • Since most of the people who will be in the workforce in 20 years are in the workforce right now, Congress passes legislation entitling every adult and young adult worker to the education necessary to meet the Board Examination standard; those who choose to take advantage of this provision become a new school clientele.
  • To ensure the ability of adults to get to and maintain educational standards throughout their lives, Congress creates Personal Competitiveness Accounts. These start with a $500 federal provision at birth, continue at a lower level, and allow tax-free contributions from the individual, employers and the state, with interest accruing tax free.

The Commission acknowledges that components of its recommendations are costly, but argues that scrapping current inefficiencies will provide $60 billion for redeployment and that maintaining the status quo makes ongoing loss of jobs and wealth inevitable. State approaches to legislation, investment, collective bargaining and administration would undoubtedly vary, and, as with cultural policy, could function as a national laboratory if networked and studied with sufficient resources. The report’s 20-page executive summary is online at Background research and report materials can be found at As always, I welcome your comments, suggestions and questions in response to this column.

In this Issue

Legislative Update

Executive Director's Column

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