How to keep America's education edge

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For the first time in US history, the next generation of Americans may be less educated than the previous one. That's just one warning from a panel of experts in a must-read report released Thursday that calls for a root-and-branch overhaul of public schools.

The report, called "Tough Choices or Tough Times," cites worrisome trends for the US in failing to meet the competition for high-level skills coming from Asia and Europe. Country after country is surpassing the US in the proportion of workers with a high school education. A generation ago, the US produced 30 percent of the world's college grads; today it's 14 percent. In the key arena of educating engineers for emerging high-tech fields, the US is falling far behind.

And as more US employers disburse work globally, average American wages have dropped.

Recommended: 15 must-read books about K-12 education in the US

The 26-member bipartisan panel, called the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, lays out a bold restructuring of the K-12 system – which was designed more than a century ago. As Congress prepares to reauthorize the 2001 No Child Left Behind law that requires standardized testing – a modest reform with limited success – it should also look at backing a few states in testing the panel's deeper reforms. Some governors, too, will find these ideas to be a way to boost flagging state economies.

For starters, the report finds cities and towns no longer up to the prime responsibility over K-12. "How can a local school board really know the future of the global economy?" asks Harry Spence, a panel member and Massachusetts commissioner for social services.

The report's blueprint is not a piecemeal approach and does not call for more money. Its main recommendation is to give states full authority to set curriculums and to hire, train, and certify teachers. Rather than own schools, local districts would sign contracts with independent education contractors, many of which would be run by teachers.

Schools would be funded by the state, while local districts would only set performance standards and be able to drop a "contract school."

A regional "authority," meanwhile, would bring together business and other key leaders to guide the type of education needed for growth industries.

Teachers would be paid more to work in poor areas, and pay would be based on performance, not seniority. Candidates for teacher training would be recruited from the top third of high school seniors, not the bottom third, as now.

Current state tests, the panel finds, are inadequate for "workers of 21st century America." A new type of state tests, called "state board qualifying exams," would measure more than knowledge, such as mastery of a core curriculum, innovation, self- discipline, and teamwork. If passed, students would be able to enter various levels of state higher education.

Adults without degrees could also take the exams to help retool themselves. And from birth, each citizen would receive $500 in a "personal competitiveness account" to spend on continuing education.

Such ideas aren't for the faint of heart. And they may end up not working in early experiments. But together, they point a way out of America's educational decline.

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