Education as work force development falls short

Jul 29, 2011 by

American education debates often seem to be on an infinite loop; the same battles fought over and over, with occasional new faces parroting updated jargon. That description applies to the Obama administration reprising efforts to transform the focus of American public education from academics to work force development.

Days after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, sent incoming first lady Hillary Clinton a detailed plan for transforming the mission of schools from teaching academic content to training students for the work force.

In what has become known as the “Dear Hillary letter,” Tucker proposed a nationalized system to be coordinated by “labor market boards at the local, state and federal levels” in which counselors would handle curriculum and “job matching” by “accessing the integrated computer-based program.”

He sought national standards and testing to put the federal government in control of assessments and granting the “Certificates of Mastery” that would replace high school diplomas. The plan was so singularly focused on training students for specific jobs that Tucker’s letter referred to “human resource development” rather than education.

Just months after the Dear Hillary letter, lawmakers in Massachusetts chose a very different path. The Bay State’s landmark 1993 education reform law is explicit in its focus on educating students for full participation in our democracy, not just fill work force needs: “The (state’s) standards shall provide for instruction in at least the major principles of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and The Federalist Papers.”

The results have been better than even the law’s authors could have imagined. The commonwealth’s SAT scores rose for 13 consecutive years beginning in 1993. In 2005, Massachusetts students became the first ever to score best in the nation in every category of the so-called Nation’s Report Card. The next two times the tests were administered, they repeated the feat.

While American students as a whole lag their international peers, 2008 math and science test results showed that Massachusetts students were competitive with their counterparts from places like Japan, South Korea and Singapore. The Bay State’s eighth-graders even tied for first in the world in science.

In contrast, Washington, D.C.-based education trade groups like Achieve Inc., the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers that support the work force development model can’t point to a single program they have initiated that has definitively boosted student achievement.

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