Education Study: Remake the Public Schools A report from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce recommends a major overhaul of U.S. public schools.
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Education Study: Remake the Public Schools

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Education Study: Remake the Public Schools

Education Study: Remake the Public Schools

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Change is the solution. That's the word from a non-partisan group of educators and public servants. Their new report recommends an overhaul of America's public schools.

Among the recommendations of the new commission on the skills of the American workforce are increased pay and the end of pensions for teachers, universal pre-kindergarten and ways for more high school students to take college classes. But how realistic are these goals?

Joining me now are Harry Spence, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, and Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy.

Gentlemen, welcome.

Mr. HARRY SPENCE (Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Social Services): Thank you.

Mr. JACK JENNINGS (President, Center on Education Policy): Well, good to be here.

CHIDEYA: Thank you. Harry, you are part of the commission that produced this report. There are so many reports that talk about America's failing schools. Why do you expect your report to make a difference?

Mr. SPENCE: Well, I think the critical thing here is that this report really takes a completely new look at the education system. It says we've been doing piecemeal interventions to try and fix this system for the last 15 or 20 years, and they're not working.

If we were designing a school system sensibly to meet the international challenge today, what would it look like? This report speaks to the fact that probably as much as 80 percent of our student population does not meet international competition standards today.

CHIDEYA: Harry, what will a high school student be able to do who's been through the reformed educational world of the kind that you're talking about? What skills are they going to have? What opportunities are they going to have? What are we really talking about here from a student's perspective?

Mr. SPENCE: Well, the critical issue is a post-high school education. That's the central issue. America has the highest dropout rate of any advanced industrial nation in the world - the highest.

Out of 100 young people who graduate from high school, 18 end up completing either community college or a four-year college within six years of starting college.

And the first challenge is to dramatically increase levels of education. Everybody who does not receive either an advanced technical education or a college education in the world of knowledge that we're entering is a person who is essentially surplussed by the economy.

So if we're to compete, we've got to double the number, at least, the number of young people going on for post-high school education. And the goal here of this whole restructuring is to make sure that happens, and make it possible for young people to, A, experience high school as a genuine, exciting, intellectual challenge. But if they meet that challenge, they could leave at 16 and go straight into either a community or technical college.

So the other purpose is to streamline it so we don't have those last couple of years of high school, which too often are just biding time for students who then often dropout out of boredom.

The savings from the efficiencies in the last two years of high school and eliminating remediation at the college level would be $58 billion, we estimate, which allows us to do a lot of things including universal pre-school, aids and supports for lower-achieving children and greatly increase salaries for teachers without going out and asking the public to come up with a large increase in dollars for education.

CHIDEYA: Jack, do you agree with his analysis of the problem and that public education is the solution?

Mr. JENNINGS: I do. I think the report has a very good take on the economic situation facing the United States. And if you look at the last election, the Iraq war was high up in people's minds. But if you look at the polls, you'll find that the economy was even higher.

People at gut-level understand that things aren't going right with the American economy. The report points out quite correctly that the average American is facing well-educated people in other countries who are willing to work for a lot less money.

CHIDEYA: Jack, do you disagree either with any of the recommendations of this report, or just with their feasibility of being implemented?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, this report cannot be implemented today. In fact, it's going to set off a storm of protests from local school boards that would lose direct authority over funding of schools, from older teachers who might feel that they're imperiled because their pensions may be questioned.

But the main thing to keep in mind is that, if the economic analysis is right, we've got to think differently. We've got to think more creatively, more daringly. And we have to be able to face some of these hard issues and say how are we really going to do better. Incremental little steps aren't going to work.

CHIDEYA: So I have a question for both of you, gentlemen. But before that I'm going to give you a little bit of my life story, for what it's worth. I grew up in an overwhelmingly black neighborhood in Baltimore, working-class neighborhood.

And first grade, I went to the local public school. But it was not particularly good and my mom went through the system and got me placed in a better magnet-style school. That was all the way across town, I rode a bus to get there.

Mr. SPENCE: Yup.

CHIDEYA: Not every parent is going to have the desire to wrangle the public education system in order to get their kid into the best schools.

Mr. SPENCE: Right.

CHIDEYA: And Jack, you were just saying these recommendations can't be implemented overnight, so I would start with Jack and then Harry.

So what's going to happen in the interim, even if you have a situation where all of a sudden policy makers say we're going to implement this report, what happens between now and then? Jack first, and then Harry.

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, between now and then, there are reforms going on. The No Child Left Behind Act, as controversial as it is, is directing attention to kids who have been left behind, the poor and children of color and so on.

So there are reforms that are pushing the current systems that test scores go up so that you do get a better break in current schools. But the point of the report is that we can squeeze our current systems so far. And we will get increases in achievement, but we have to have a quantum leap in achievement. We have to have a rethinking of the way things are.

One of the problems in the United States is that we have some very good schools, but we also have some rotten schools. And in other countries, they tend to have an evenness among their schools that we don't have. And what we have to do is try to make every school a good school.

CHIDEYA: Harry, first of all, are there any states lining up to make these sweeping changes? I mean…

Mr. SPENCE: There are states that are very seriously engaged in conversation with the commission right now.

CHIDEYA: OK, and I presumed you're not going to release their…

Mr. SPENCE: I can't. No, I can't identify them. But there are conversations going on that are very exciting for those of us on the commission.

CHIDEYA: What responsibility - I'm going to toss this to Jack - do you think that the federal government should bear because federal funding of education is just a fraction of the overall picture?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, the federal government provides about 89 percent of the total cost of elementary-secondary education. So the federal government, in no way, can dictate that a state has to revise its system of education to fulfill all of these particulars.

What the federal government can do is to give some incentives to the states to experiment and track the experiments and see how they work.

CHIDEYA: Jack, what is your fantasy for what this will do for teachers? You know, again going back to my own family experience, my mother was a teacher for many years. I have an aunt who's a principal, another aunt who's a teacher, and so on.

My mom's remark on reading this report was, oh, great, higher salaries just in time. You know, just after I retired. But that was a joke, she really supports higher salaries for teachers.

But what's your fantasy for what this will do to the profession of teaching, the willingness of people to go into teaching?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, it's not a fantasy. It's a dream, an aspiration. And that is that teaching becomes a profession and that it would be respected like other professions. Unfortunately today, teaching is not that type of profession.

And the way that it would become a profession and get respect is from the things this report calls for, which is that teachers would be paid wages comparable to other professionals, that teachers would work regular hours, that teachers would be encouraged to get a higher pay immediately and higher pay as they progress along in the system. But in exchange for that, they would get 401Ks and go to TIAA-CREF, or go to some of the other retirement systems that other Americans use.

And in addition to that, if the curriculum was changed, as called for by this report, there would be a coherent system of tests and curriculum changes so that teachers who know what is to be taught and how it's to be taught.

And then students would be held accountable at the age of 16 to see whether in fact they have learned. So it wouldn't just be a burden on the shoulders of the teachers to make sure the kids get through and the teacher being vilified if they don't. It would also be a burden on the student to in fact apply him or herself so that they do pass one of these tests to go on to community college or higher education.

Mr. SPENCE: Let me just add, the purpose of those benefits is to recruit the best possible teachers into the profession as we lose an immense cohort of teachers in the next 5 to 10 years. If we're to teach world-class education, we need teachers who have the knowledge and the mastery to teach that.

CHIDEYA: We've talked a lot here about productivity, the workforce, higher education, a lot of structural issues, important issues. I want to ask you about the social issues as a closing. A lot of people look at education as a way to unify a country that is still divided by class, that is still divided by race, that is still divided by opportunity.

If these recommendations get traction, even some of them - Jack first - what do you think this will do for America socially?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, first of all, the report puts emphasis on improving public schools, not on encouraging vouchers and private companies to run schools for profit. It says that public education is an important good in the United States, and so that's a unifying principle.

Secondly, if we really follow through on some of these ideas, namely fairer funding for schools across the board, more investment in helping kids who lag behind, fairer pay for teachers, holding everybody to higher aspirations, kids will feel that they are being more respected because they are having better schools that will help them to get together in life.

CHIDEYA: Harry?

Mr. SPENCE: Well, I actually think that this report seeks to address the issue of social - exactly that question of social cohesion. We have to recognize that if we don't do something dramatic in our education system then what's going to happen is the American managerial elite will continue to be the business elite of the world for probably another 50 years, easily.

But the great mass of the American population will grow poorer and poorer and poorer and will have further aggravation of the gross inequality of incomes that's already occurring and the loss of a very large portion of our population to dropouts and the like.

The issue of not only social but racial cohesion is crucially dependent on our ability to educate every child. And to do that, we have to recognize that our system right now is as inequitable as any one in any advanced industrial country. We spend more on wealthy students and less on poor students. And we expect less of poor students.

If we're to be a country that is worthy of the American dream, we've got to offer opportunity across the board. And that will ultimately sustain everyone in the nation as - since this is a case of the rising tide floating all boats. Without it, I think the divisions in the country will become increasingly tense and bitter.

CHIDEYA: Well, Harry and Jack, thank you so much.

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, thank you for the invitation.

Mr. SPENCE: Thank you. Pleasure to talk to you.

CHIDEYA: Harry Spence is commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services and a member of the New Commission on The Skills of the American Workforce. Jack Jennings is president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

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CHIDEYA: The Episcopal Church ordains gay priests and some parishioners turn away. And we turn up the heat with a cool chef, G. Garvin.

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