Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tough Choices

The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce issued its report (Tough Choices for Tough Times) on December 14. The executive summary is available here. This builds on and modifies the report of the original commission issued in 1990. Now, the New Commission notes that 16 years ago it was clear that unskilled work would increasingly be outsourced, performed by workers in developing countries, but that few anticipated that even skilled jobs would be performed efficiently and for lower pay in other countries such as India and China. Currently, an Indian engineer earns $7,500 annually as compared to $45,000 for an American engineer with the same qualifications. The increasing prevalence of digitized work makes it possible for the Indian engineer to do the required work from overseas. At the same time, the digital revolution is increasing the number of unskilled jobs that can be automated.

The New Commission makes the case that creativity will increasingly be as important to the American worker as technological skill. It notes, "This is a world in which a very high level of preparedness in reading, writing, speaking, math, science, literature, and the arts will be an indispensable foundation for everything that comes after for most members of the workforce." This sounds to me like an argument for a liberal education, an education in critical thinking and communicating, as well as in technical proficiencies.

The study group makes a series of recommendations, including the following:

  • A system of exams given at the end of 10th grade that would determine what path students take--to a community college, to further accelerated high school study via AP or International Baccalaureate course, or to a trade school.

  • Universal early childhood education beginning at age 3.

  • Recruitment of the best high school students to become teachers.

  • More open-ended, less multiple-choice testing.

  • More schools operated by independent contractors.

  • More state (vs. district) oversight of school financing, etc.

  • Easier access to adult education.

  • "Personal Competitiveness Accounts" for everyone to start at birth and to be available to use for educational expenses.

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