Tough Choices – Tough Times


“The core problem is that our education and training systems were built for another era. We can get where we must go only by changing the system itself.”

This pretty much sums up the tone of this challenging (2007) report from the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.

Drawing from a worldwide programme of research and analysis over two years (that included New Zealand), and funders including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, this report focuses on the need for change in our education system in order to meet the challenges of participating in a global knowledge economy. The emphasis in the report is predictably on issues relating to the preparation of school leavers for jobs in a worldwide market for high-value-added products and services, concluding the need to adopt internationally benchmarked standards for educating students and workers.

The report is certainly challenging, and will no doubt have its critics, but the challenges it puts forward deserve a response. Take for instance the 10 “acts we should face” when considering what the education system of the future might be like:

  1. a disproportionate number of (US) teachers are drawn form the less able of the high school students who go to college.
  2. we tolerate an enormous amount of waste the system – failing students early on when the cost of doing the job right would be relatively low, and trying to remediate later on when the cost is high.
  3. our inherently inefficient system has gotten progressively inefficient over time.
  4. the growing inequality in family incomes is contributing heavily to the growing disparities in student achievement (specific to the US where local schools are funded largely from local property tax)
  5. we have failed to motivate our students to take tough courses and work hard
  6. our teacher compensation system is designed to reward time in service rather than attract the best and brightest school leavers and reward the best of our teachers
  7. too often our testing system rewards those who will be good at routine work rather than providing opportunities for students to display creative and innovative thinking and analysis
  8. we’ve built a bureaucracy where the people with the responsibility don’t have the power (and vice versa)
  9. most of the people who will be in our workforce are already in it!
  10. funding mechanisms created for supporting students through college and university are not appropriate for those who have full-time jobs or family responsibilities who want to get continuing education and training.

The report is definitely situated in the US context, with many of the issues they face being quite different in NZ. For example, there’s quite a discussion about the end of vertical integration as a business strategy, and a focus on localised efforts and those that address a particular layer in the process – much of which we’ve already grappled with in NZ as a result of the 1989 education reforms.

That said, however, there’s a lot here that we could be taking notice of here in NZ – most of the challenges in the list above could be applied here to some extent for instance.

Two things that kept re-surfacing in the report for me were:

  • focus on creativity and innovation – this comes through as one of the critical elements of the future education process, and to be achieved will require considerable change to our recruitment of teachers, engagement of students, and assessment processes. The report refers to the need for leadership that… “depends on a deep vein of creativity that is constantly renewing itself.”
  • the importance of work-place training – constant reference is made to the fact that most of our workforce, including teachers, who will be there over the next 10 years are already there – so attention to what happens at the school level is only part of the story. There needs to be a greater emphasis on the provision of continuing education for those already in the workplace, and the funding and support models to underpin this.

The series of recommendations made in the report are both imaginative and potentially disruptive. It will be interesting to see how they are responded to int he US – meantime, I believe we could well do with some critique of them in the NZ context as we face the prospect of moving forward with the development of a new curriculum, assessment regime, secondary futures project etc.

A 1.9mb PDF version of the executive summary of the report can be downloaded here or the complete report in book form from

(thanks to my good friend Mark Treadwell for drawing this to my attention – I’m sure he and I will enjoy some lengthy skype sessions over this!)

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