Show Me The Reform

You’ll hear a lot about this New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce report in the next few days, it’s already got big media buzzing – they love a parade! It’s well worth reading and makes recommendations along multiple fronts from testing to school district structure to adult education. I don’t agree with it all (the testing regime seems a distraction from the path we’re on now), though a lot hardly anyone will disagree with, but there are a few things many folks will especially school boards, school districts, and teachers’ unions. But, for my money, the most notable thing about it is its proposed financing rather than any of the recommendations themselves.

Usually these big-think reports come with a big-think price tag and a call for everyone to dig deep, value education in fiscal terms as much as we do in rhetorical ones, etc…This is the first really seminal one that I can think of that lays out the hard truth that a lot of this is going to have to be financed on resources already in the system. That’s a big signal shift and for a country that has more than doubled its education spending in a generation, it’s a sign of new seriousness about policymaking.

Some of the financing is supposed to come from increased efficiencies, and that’s a tough one. But the more concrete idea, and the one that the usual suspects will hate, is the idea of repurposing funds structurally from veteran teachers and toward newbies. Yet considering the research on teacher effectiveness, what we know about the education labor market, and how our human capital resources (salaries and benefits) are allocated in this field, fixing the misalignment is high priority. Now I’m not saying, and don’t think the commission is saying, that you can or should hose veteran teachers or create a “ten and out” system. But, there is plenty of room between those extremes and what we have now and policymakers have to go there.

The back channel chatter on this is also surfacing some resentments from folks who have worked on these various issues but feel they got short shrift in the report. Many of the ideas have been around for a while in different forms and championed by different people. The most notable instance is the contracting idea for schools, which Paul Hill has been a leader on for some time, though there are others as well on multiple issues. In some ways that is par for the course with these things, they’re compendiums and syntheses of the best ideas and thinking already out there. But, in a report that is confident in its tone and self-referencing, the authors would have done themselves a favor to make that much more clear.

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