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Tough Talk, Mushy Thinking [Part I]

Recently a new education report, Tough Choices or Tough Times, was published to great fanfare.

Tough Choices is the work of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which is in turn sponsored by Marc Tucker‘s National Center on Education and the Economy [NCEE]. [The New is italicized because the report is actually the second NCEE document in this vein: its original Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce produced an earlier report in 1990.] It is no secret that the NCEE and a number of commission members would like to promote Tough Choices as a twenty-first century A Nation At Risk. It remains to be seen, however, if it will garner even a small share of the influence its famous predecessor possessed.

For starters, there is the little matter that while Tough Choices features rather prominently the argument that American education must respond to the challenges of the new global economy and technology, NCEE insists upon the rather retro, old economy practice of forcing readers to buy print copies to read the entire report, as Sherman Dorn tellingly pointed out. Only the Executive Summary of the report is available on-line, unlike every other significant education report in memory during the last few years. Given plans to discuss the report here on Edwize, I felt compelled to shell out the $20 to read the whole document, but I am probably part of a rather small group in this regard. I was looking for a more grounded case for the Commission’s recommendations, with some compelling supportive evidence; the Executive Summary operates at a frustratingly high level of generality, in an argument of broad, sweeping assertion after broad, sweeping assertion. That search was in vain: save your $20, and read the Executive Summary. You won’t be missing anything by skipping the larger report.

A great deal has already been written on Tough Choices. Check out the AFT’s thoughts here. Sympathetic commentary came from Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham and New York Times columnist and globalization enthusiast Thomas L. Freidman. On the more critical side, take a look at Michael Klonsky’s Small Talk blog and at a new up and coming education blog in NYC, Ed in the Apple. And from the far right, the Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson opined that the proposal does not go far enough in its calls for incremental educational privatization. There is a great deal more commentary out there, but these pieces will give you a representative selection of responses to Tough Choices.

Even if it fails to resonate nationally, Tough Choices should be of particular interest to New York City educators. Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein was one of the individual members on the Commission, and there is a close correspondence between a number of the recommendations advocated in the report and policy proposals recently put forward by Klein. Klein was unsuccessful in introducing a number of these proposals into the latest contract, but he is proceeding apace with others outside of the collective bargaining framework. This report provides us with a map of the places where he would like to take New York City public schools in the last years of his tenure – and if for no other reason, it is worth a close look.

Given the complexity of the issues raised by Tough Choices, we will divide our analysis into three separate posts. In the remainder of this first post, we will survey a number of the report’s recommendations which are not currently live issues in New York City, either because they were not included in the last contract despite Klein’s best efforts, or because they focus on an area where there is a broad consensus among educators and educational policy thinkers. In the second post, we will look at the report’s recommendations in an area where Klein is preparing a major initiative — the privatization of the management of New York City public schools — which would cross a major line in the sand for public education advocates and teacher unionists. In the third and last post, we will examine the report’s general contextual argument for making the changes in American public schools that it recommends — what one might call its argument from economic globalization — and show why that argument is based on flawed premises.

Here are the particular issues.


Teacher unions agree with the report’s recommendation for establishing high quality, universal pre-kindergarten. Early formal education is a key to later success, especially for children living in poverty.


Teacher unions have been in the forefront of the struggle to provide full, necessary and equitable educational resources to high needs schools serving poor communities, and we embrace without reservation the Tough Choices recommendation to achieve that goal.


Teacher unions identify with the report’s desire to professionalize teaching and improve the aptitude of those entering the American teaching profession, and accept its analysis that teacher salaries will have to be raised to meet these goals. However, we find that there is a serious disconnect between these goals and the means the report proposes to achieve them – raiding teacher pensions and teacher health coverage to put more money in salaries for entry level teachers. This “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scheme allows Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham to commend Tough Choices as “serious” because it does not call for an increase in overall funding to education. [Klein sought to make inroads in this area in our last contract, but was turned back.]

Tough Choices misdiagnoses the problem we face as solely one of the recruitment of high aptitude teachers, and ignores the fact that teacher retention is by far the more serious part of the problem – here in New York City, and more generally throughout America, we lose 1 of every 2 new teachers by their fifth year. [For in-depth analyses of this retention problem, see the study of Susan Moore Johnson and the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools and the reports of Public Agenda, A Sense of Calling: Who Teaches and Why, and the Public Education Network, The Voice of the New Teacher.] The ‘retention’ crisis is particularly acute among the very type of high aptitude teacher Tough Choices says we need to attract: new teachers in the NYC Teaching Fellows program leave at a greater and quicker rate than other new teachers. This means that we are losing all too many new teachers, and more of our best new teachers, at the very point where they are just beginning to master the skills of teaching, and after we have invested significant resources in their professional development. Pace Tough Choices, the problem is not so much attracting new teachers with great potential, as it is keeping them in education.

Their reasons for leaving, these beginning teachers tell us, are more the teaching and learning conditions in their schools than it is their salaries, although they clearly think those salaries inadequate for the labor they do. Leaving novice teachers complain of disorderly, unsafe schools; of the lack of curricula and programs of study that are proven and work; of a lack of support from their school administrators and district officials; and of a disregard for teachers’ professional voice and judgment. Insofar as they play a role in new teachers’ calculations on the future, defined benefit pension plans and quality health care are actually incentives for them to stay.

This retention crisis is part of a longstanding structural problem in American schooling, as Richard Ingersol’s “Is There Really A Teacher Shortage?” argues. American education has been built around policies that keep teaching “a lower status, easy-in/easy-out, high turnover occupation,” in order to minimize its costs and to hamper the development of teacher solidarity. The professionalization of American teaching requires a reversal of those policies, yet Tough Choices’ recommendations move in the opposite direction, exacerbating them.


Too many American students do not graduate high school, or do not graduate it ready to do post-secondary work, and far too many of these students live in poverty and come from communities of color. A generation ago, this was not as grave a problem as it is today, since those who did not pursue their education could still find decent, middle class jobs in largely unionized industries such as automobiles and steel. Today, those jobs [and the once great industrial unions] have been decimated by the global economy, and some measure of post-secondary education is necessary for middle class employment.

But as Thomas L. Friedman recognizes in his commentary, what is important here is not simply the attainment of further formal education, but the development of the habits and skills of creative, critical thinking which are so central to the emerging global knowledge economy. What Friedman does not seem to understand, but what educators can not avoid recognizing, is how the Tough Choices recommendation of instituting a national standardized test at the end of the tenth grade to determine college readiness moves American education further away from promoting such creative and critical thought.

Under the regimen of standardized testing that has come in the wake of NCLB, American schools have increasingly lost the proper balance between teaching and learning, on the one hand, and the assessment of what students have learned, on the other hand. Education has been more and more crowded out of school days turned over to test preparation, and the curriculum has narrowed significantly, with less and less attention paid to the creative and critical thought which can not be captured on standardized, multiple choice tests. Yet one more standardized test – this time, for every high school student in the nation – can only make an increasingly bad situation worse. Moreover, rather than moving students capable of doing more advanced work out of high school earlier, what American education needs to do is dramatically rethink secondary education.

If America is truly serious about achieving the goal that all students graduate high school, ready to do post-secondary work, we must jettison the notion that all students will move through their middle and high school years at the same pace. We need to develop a differentiated course of study that allows schools to support and stick with at risk students who take longer to master the standards, at the same time that students who rapidly achieve proficiency are given more challenging work. Developing that sort of secondary education will be hard, but necessary and essential, work – and a universal standardized test is no short cut around it.



  • 1 Persam1197
    · Dec 29, 2006 at 10:20 am

    I agree with most of the above commentary. My one exception is the notion that “all students graduate high school, ready to do post-secondary work.” Clearly, America is not “truly serious” as we can see. What we have done is to make testing the goal instead of learning.

    As educators, we must prepare our kids for what the world has to offer. We have, as a nation, decided that manufacturing will no longer be the primary engine that fuels the economy. Therefore, placing all our kids on a college-track route has been the ideal (without the appropriate resources, of course). The reality is that many of our kids have no interest in college. We need to bring back vocational training for the service jobs that do exist. For those students who are not going to college (by choice or preparation), we need to invest in our children to the degree that a student is either college-ready or trained to earn a living immediately after high school. A case in point is George Washington High School. They had a successful ACE certified automotive training program until just a few years ago. Many of those kids went on to work for dealers at BMW, Mercedes, FOrd, GM, etc. It was eliminated to make room for yet another mini-school.

    We still need ironworkers, masons, carpenters, mechanics, cosmetologists, plumbers, electricians, machinists, technology repair technicians, etc. One of my recent graduates works as a service tech for Cablevision and makes almost as much as I do after 14 years teaching.

    Let’s find out where our kids’ interests and gifts are and develop them rather than stretching them in a Procrustrian bed of “college or bust.”

  • 2 paulrubin
    · Dec 29, 2006 at 12:10 pm

    Our leaders need to keep those jobs open for the illegal aliens they refuse to get a handle on.

    There’s no question that the primary goal for K-12 should be college preparation in the overall scheme of things but there’s no reason why programs can’t exist for those who are borderline for college (or worse) to better prepare them for the myriad jobs that will exist that do not require advanced degrees. Furthermore, I look fondly on my non-academic forays as a middle schooler and high school student back in the 70’s pretty much 7 days a week. I learned some really useful skills such as how to sew, how to sand, how to cut wood, the basics of cooking, and in a lucky break for me, how to fix cars. I don’t actually repair my own vehicles but I (1) always have a general sense of what might be wrong with them and thus (2) never get ripped off when I’m forced to have them serviced.

    Sadly today’s school system doesn’t train kids how to assemble their own grill or put together an entertainment center. Hell we don’t even give them an inkling how to connect a hi def LCD to a DVR box and still know where the DVD, VCR, and audio system fits in.

  • 3 Mixscarlet
    · Jan 2, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    “If America is truly serious about achieving the goal that all students graduate high school, ready to do post-secondary work, we must jettison the notion that all students will move through their middle and high school years at the same pace.”

    I 100% agree with this. In many other countries, the educational pursuits of a student are tailored to that student’s aptitude (as well as wishes). Children who show a high proficiency in math are shuttled to more challenging programs, same with writing, science, or engineering/technical fields. This leads to highly trained and specialized workers who have developed skills early on. On the other hand, ‘high risk’ kids aren’t abandoned either but their learning is also tailored to their specific needs. The US might benefit from a diverse, yet individualized, educational plan.