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Bad Choices bring Bad Times: Analyzing the NCEE's 2006 Report

IP-7-2007 (November 2007)
Author: Steven Pittz

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Executive Summary

The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) convened a Commission aimed at revamping an educational system the NCEE deems incapable of preparing Americans for the competition of an increasingly globalized economy. The Commission’s proposed educational redesign is found in its 2006 report Tough Choices or Tough Times. A review of the report shows that it would likely fail to meet many of the expectations it lays out for itself. The Commission believes that its proposed redesign would achieve eight objectives, but it appears unlikely to accomplish more than the following four:

  • The most rigorous standards the nation has ever seen. The Commission proposes a State Board Qualifying Examination (SBQE) that could improve standards. But many problems accompany high-stakes exams, including the question of what should be tested.
  • Real school finance equity. The Commission recommends a state-based pupil-weighted funding formula that would ensure all public schools receive equal funding for an equal number of students, with extra funding for at-risk students.
  • The end of seniority rights and tenure for teachers. The Commission proposes a uniform salary schedule and new career ladder that would include performance-based pay. Teachers could increase career earnings in exchange for a more modest retirement.
  • A clear role for unions. The Commission would grant unions power to bargain directly with the state, creating a monopoly collective bargaining organization at the state level. The four objectives likely to be missed are:
  • Real school autonomy. Despite the transformation of all public schools into contract schools, the considerable control granted to government over education precludes real school autonomy.
  • The end of vouchers. Disagreement over core content and curricula promise to perpetuate the desire for private schooling and school vouchers.
  • A public-school marketplace. A true marketplace is driven by the demands of consumers; but in this model, the most important consumers of education, students and their parents, are underrepresented, if not entirely neglected.
  • The elimination of bureaucracy. With the introduction of state-approved school support “networks,” regional competitiveness authorities (RCAs) and personal competitiveness accounts (PCAs), the model seems likely to replace existing bureaucracy with a new one.

The reason for the likely failure to meet so many of the NCEE’s expectations is that the objectives are incomplete in themselves. By reducing the role of education to the provision of economic needs, the Commission clouds its vision of education as a whole. The NCEE’s model resembles the German educational system, which emphasizes vocational training for some students at the expense of more academic training. This system puts the needs of the state above the needs of parents and students, and it trains workers more than it cultivates a well-rounded citizenry. But liberal education, which “seeks to develop free human beings who know how to use their minds and are capable of thinking for themselves,” should be preeminent. In the rapidly changing environment of the 21st century, capable, independent persons who can adapt to changing circumstances are needed more than ever.

The NCEE’s proposed redesign—which contains both good and bad ideas—should be approached with caution. Many of its recommendations, and its underlying educational philosophy, should be avoided entirely.