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Education Reporter

Groups Respond to Marc Tucker Plan; Scholar Calls It Radical, Misguided

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In the first weeks after the publication of "Tough Choices or Tough Times," by Marc Tucker and the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, the media seemed quite smitten. CBS News ran a story (12-14-2006) that combined excitement over the report with human interest stories that substantiated Marc Tucker's prophecy of doom for the American economy unless his proposals are enacted.

16-year-old Neha Sharma takes advanced classes at her high school in Arlington, VA. "I hate to say this, but the education system over here is worse than it is in India," she told CBS.

Sharma, the daughter of a diplomat, happily experienced the best India's education system had to offer during her time in that country. However, she doesn't seem to know that only 59.5% of adults in India, and only 48% of women, can read or write. Only 76% of Indian children have the good fortune to attend primary school at all.

The CBS article appears to be an example of fear and alarm obscuring the facts, and faulty assumptions promoting feelings of panic. Now that the first flush of media enthusiasm has faded, educators, administrators and education critics across the nation are examining the details of Marc Tucker's comprehensive proposal.

The National School Boards Association endorsed the universal preschool plan, the plans to increase funding and services for disadvantaged children, and teacher salary increase. But it also criticized the restructuring of school governance and school district operations, and it questioned the report's basis and reliability. "Should the American public build a new K-12 system on a leap of faith, given that many of the report's recommendations are not supported by current data?" the NSBA asked.

The National Education Association (NEA) applauded the concept of school reform, the importance of 21st-century skills, and the universal preschool plan. It criticized the idea of increasing teacher pay by decreasing retirement benefits, and the school funding and governance recommendations that would remove local funding and reduce local control. "There is no evidence to show that states or even private contractors are any better than local school boards in defining a community's educational needs," said the NEA.

The NEA also warned that Tucker's plan could "disenfranchise poorer communities" - a concern voiced by many critics. Since "Tough Choices" calls for 10th-graders who fail a board exam to leave high school for vocational training, and disadvantaged students are less likely to pass the test, it is very likely that Tucker's system would pigeonhole poorer students. As in India and many other nations, the plan would "improve" the system in part by leaving out students who are less likely to succeed academically.

In the January 17 Education Week, Dr. Diane Ravitch presents an incisive critique of "Tough Choices" entitled "Radical Ideas, Misguided Assumptions." Dr. Ravitch is an education historian, New York University research professor, and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Brookings Institution.

Of the 10th-grade board exam, Dr. Ravitch says, "It is not clear how this proposal will improve academic performance or why the nation needs to construct this elaborate examination system to sort young people into careers."

Ravitch criticizes almost all the report's most important proposals: the 10th-grade test, the standardized tests for such qualities as creativity, teamwork and self-discipline, the teacher recruitment strategies, the takeover of schools by independent contractors, the Personal Competitiveness Accounts for workforce training, and the regional economic-development authorities.

"The riskiest and most incomprehensible gamble of all," according to Ravitch, is dismantling and reconstructing school governance, so that the local school board's only role is to hire and oversee independent contractors who will run the schools. Like the NEA and the NSBA, Ravitch sees no evidence that this would improve the schools.

Although she calls the school governance recommendations the riskiest, Ravitch even more sharply criticizes the "regional economic-development authorities." According to "Tough Choices," these authorities would create "development goals and strategies for their regions" and coordinate "the work of the region's education and training institutions to make sure that each region's workers develop the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in that labor market." Ravitch comments:

"In a report that supposedly focuses on nimble, high-performance management, this is a bizarre proposal. It sounds a bit like a Soviet five-year plan. Why does Congress need to 'encourage' states to establish regional authorities? Do regions really need such authorities to coordinate education and training institutions? Why would these authorities be the best guide to the skills and knowledge that workers need? This proposal promises nothing but a layer of bureaucratic management to try to steer the economy, a strategy that has never worked in the past and is not likely to work in the future."

Overall, Ravitch simply does not believe that Tucker's recommendations will fix what's wrong with American education. She faults not only the tough choices the commission wants to make, but also the choices the report says nothing about. "Taken together, the report's fervent advocacy of structural change stands in sharp contrast to its indifference to curriculum and instruction . . . Unfortunately, the commission's report contains not a shred of evidence that its prescriptions will work."

Like the NEA and the NSBA, Dr. Ravitch affirms some aspects of "Tough Choices." She sees no major problems with universal preschool if people are willing to pay for it. Nor does she strongly object to abandonment of local funding in favor of state funding — she calls this recommendation "one of the few that stand a chance of influencing public policy."

Though she thinks some ideas are better than others, Ravitch reminds her readers that Tucker's commission does not want critics or the public to pick and choose which recommendations they'll take. "The commission has the nerve to insist that no one should cherry-pick 'only those ideas that cost the least and offend the fewest.' No, they demand a wholesale adoption of their recommendations."

If the choice is "all or nothing," it appears the NEA and other prominent organizations, along with Dr. Ravitch, would choose nothing. But the debate over Tucker's radical ideas has only just begun.

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