Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Fresh Start Education" - An Approach for All

In his NY Times column a week or two ago, David Brooks wrote a piece entitled "Fresh Start Conservatism" to which people and politicians of all political persuasions should take heed. In it he elaborates upon the reason the United States became a leader and world power during the past century: an excellent educational system available to all.

As he comments, "[The] quality work force [created through the educational system] was the single biggest reason the U.S. emerged as the economic superpower of the 20th century. Generation after generation, American workers were better educated, more industrious and more innovative than the ones that came before."

He notes, however, that "that progress stopped about 30 years ago. The percentage of young Americans completing college has been stagnant for a generation. As well-educated boomers retire over the next decades, the quality of the American work force is likely to decline."

What's the solution? Brooks suggests, "If I were advising the Republican nominee, this is one of the places I’d ask him to plant his flag. I’d ask him to call for a new human capital revolution, so that the U.S. could recapture the spirit of reforms like the Morrill Act of the 19th century, the high school movement of the early 20th century and the G.I. Bill after World War II."

This is advice that should transcend politics, and whoever is the next President, whether Republican or Democrat (or Ralph Nader), should take it to heart.

Brooks continues, "[Calling for a human capital revolution] would mean taking on the populists of the left and right, the ones who imagine the problem is globalization and unfair trade when in fact the real problem is that the talents of American workers are not keeping up with technological change.

"Doing that would also mean stealing ideas from both the left and right. Liberals have spent more time thinking about human capital than conservatives, who have tended to imagine that if you build a free market, a quality labor force would magically appear....

"[We need to lay[] down lifelong policies. Human capital development is like nutrition — you have to do it every day...."

To this end, Brooks suggests specific approaches:

-Address the "poisonous spiral of economic stress" among the lower-middle class. "A new working class tax credit applied against the payroll tax would reduce some of the stress. So would a larger child tax credit and increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit. The federal budget should bestow less on seniors and more on young families."

-Bolster early-childhood education. "There could be nurse-home visits for children in chaotic homes so that they have some authority in their lives. Preschool should be radically expanded and accountability programs put in place."

-"Loosen the grip of the teachers’ unions. Certification rules have to be radically reformed to attract qualified college graduates. Merit pay has to become the norm. Reforming superintendents need the freedom to copy the models — like KIPP Academies — that actually work."

-Encourage national service [perhaps with tuition credits]. "The real reasons [so many students don't complete college] are that students are academically unprepared and emotionally disengaged. National service should be a rite of passage for 20-somethings, and these volunteers could mentor students through high school and college years."

These are ideas we can all live by. In sum, as Brooks suggests, "positive government can help prepare people for the rigors of competition, so they can have an open field and fair chance."