Senate Committee Holds Hearing on American Competitiveness and Public Education

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Publication date: 
26 March 2012

“While globalization  and technology have dramatically increased the skills and qualifications  required to succeed today, our schools are largely geared towards the  assumptions of a 20th-century workplace.“ – Senator Tom Harkin  (D-IA)

“The Federal  government does have a role to play in improving the education of our nation’s  children through programs supported under the Head Start Act, the Elementary  and Secondary Act, Perkins Career [Vocational] and Technical Education Act, and  the Higher Education Act.” – Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY)

The March 8, 2012 hearing of the Senate Health, Education,  Labor and Pensions Committee opened with expressions of bi-partisan concern  regarding the importance of improving the number of high school graduates who  reach, and graduate from, an undergraduate institution.  Both Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Senator  Michael Enzi (R-WY) cited alarming statistics in their opening statements to  emphasize the critical urgency of this issue, including that only 10 percent of  poor students graduate from college and that America ranks 10th in  the proportion of young people with a college degree.   

Jennifer Mann, Vice President of Human Resources at the SAS  Institute, highlighted the difficulty of finding qualified employees for the  technical market.  She indicated that a  lack of preparation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)  was a common barrier for applicants who wish to find jobs in technical  fields.  She also summarized education  programs, organized by SAS, which introduce K-12 teachers and students to computer  programming to prepare them to enter the workforce. 

Charles Kolb, President of the Committee for Economic  Development, summarized the accountability movement in US K-12 education. He  cited the report “A Nation at Risk,” the No Child Left Behind Act, and  President Obama’s “Race to the Top” challenge to demonstrate bi-partisan  efforts to address education.  He also  summarized problems in American post-secondary education which he stated “pretty much got a pass” over the last  30 years:

Until  fairly recently, however, America’s postsecondary education sector has managed  to avoid the types of accountability questions that have characterized K-12  education policy discussions. For much of the last 30 years, postsecondary  education’s public policy debates have primarily concerned important questions  relating to access and financing but relatively few questions about ‘access to  what?’ -- about the quality of that American postsecondary-education experience  and what our young people should know and be able to do as a result of their  postsecondary-education experience.”

Kolb  suggested that there are three factors driving this new wave of accountability:  cost, competition, and technology.  “Cost is driving questions that weren’t  asked before,” he explained.  Because  higher education has become very expensive, there are now more discussions  regarding the quality of the education.   He described that competition in education is a global issue, and that  the US is now competing with growing economies around the globe.  Technology is, as he noted, “going to upend the existing business model  and change the focus” in education.   He cited an approach to secondary education found at MIT and Stanford, a  new business model of open courseware, which has enabled professors to teach  courses such as one that was offered to 160,000 students in 90 countries and  translated in 44 languages. 

Eric  Hanushek, Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, emphasized  that education problems are present in every state, and that it is not just a  few states dragging down student performance in the US.  He said Massachusetts, considered the state  to have the best education system, ranks behind 16 other countries in student  performance.  An area of improvement he  advocated for was teacher quality. 

Richard  Murnane, Professor of  Education and Society at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education,  spoke to the correlation between household income and education.  He explained:    “The slowdown in the rate of  increase of educational attainments of young Americans, especially those coming  from low-income families, places in jeopardy upward socioeconomic mobility in  the United States.”

The  questions from both sides of the aisle focused on what Americans can do  together to fix problems in our education system.  Harkin inquired as to what Americans are  missing in the early grades that leads students to fall behind while Enzi was  concerned that we are not focused on job-preparedness but rather how to pass  tests.  Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM)  asked whether an increase in instruction time would have a large benefit to  students.

Hanushek  advocated for a pay for performance assessment of teachers and Mann offered  insight into how her company shows students real-world applications in math and  science.  Mann suggested that  organizations can help improve access to technology in the classroom.  Murnane described how wealthy parents are  able to pay for tutors and supplemental education but that low-income families  do not have that option. 

Murnane  also suggested that “we’ve seen  increasing segregation by economic status, not race, by economic status in our  schools,” and suggested how this scenario allows those low-income students  to fall further behind.   Kolb advocated  for changing the amount of time students spend on task learning, both inside  and outside the classroom. 

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