New Year’s Resolutions for Congress

December 28, 2012

Don’t be a Grinch, Congress

Usually this time of year, we dedicate this space to our annual plea to Santa Claus with all the things we had hoped to find under our tree. Despite being good boys and girls for several years now, our list is still mostly untouched and unfulfilled. Since Santa is apparently a selfish bloke, we’re taking our wish list to a slightly less miserly entity—Congress.

It’s good timing, too. It seems as though just about every federal law governing education and workforce development is due for a tune-up. While no one has ever become poor by betting against potential Congressional actions, the law of averages suggests that at least something will be done in the coming year. So without further ado, here’s what we’ll be hoping to see in the coming year:

Higher Education

For higher education, we’re really just asking for the policy equivalent of socks and underwear—gifts that might not be flashy, but are essential to everyday life. In this case, consider the socks to be a greater investment in data, research, and transparency. We know so little about how efficiently our institutions are performing, how effective they are at teaching students, and what can make them function more smoothly. Students are asked to lay down a significant amount of money to buy their own educational gifts, but they lack any context for making the right decisions.

Business leaders need more comprehensive information in order to make better personnel decisions and to guide their private philanthropy. And if we’re serious about closing the skills gap and giving more Americans jobs in the years to come, we need to do a better job of identifying the deficiencies in the system before we can correct them.

As for the underwear in this analogy, that’s a focus on outcomes. For far too long, both policy and practice surrounding higher education has been intensely centered on what goes into an institution—whether students or money—instead of what comes out of it. But for all the billions of dollars we spend on postsecondary education, it’s reasonable to expect a better return on our investment. Whether it’s changing student aid to place incentives for degree or certificate completion, implementing performance-based funding models for institutions, or simply measuring student learning gains while in college, there is no shortage for things we can do to ensure students and taxpayers alike are getting the most bang for their buck.

We could be greedy here and ask for something shiny, new, and expensive. We’d certainly be justified, since it’s been decades since federal policy has actually done anything innovative in this arena. Instead, we’re just going to ask for the ability to make our gifts. We’ve already got some enterprising ideas out there, such as MOOCs and badges. Unfortunately, regulations and an esoteric accreditation system are getting in the way of truly realizing their potential. If Congress really wants to give the gift that keeps on giving (especially to low-income and nontraditional students) this season, put a bow on some common sense and let innovation truly remake our higher education system.

Career Technical Education (CTE)

Sometimes, the best gift you can give is more of what you gave last time around, like a Starbucks gift card. For CTE, staying on the current track and doing more of what works would be a good plan. We’ve already seen some good things come from the most current iteration of CTE, but where Congress dipped their toe into the water last time, it should dive head first this time around. The concentration on high-skill, high-wage, and high-demand occupations needs to shift from an ideal for a CTE program of study to its primary focus, as should the linkages between secondary and postsecondary education. Places that have embraced these concepts, such as the career academies in Nashville or California’s “Linked Learning” model, have seen their programs and students thrive as a result.

We still need some work in connecting core academics to technical studies, but there’s a growing foundation to build on already. Strengthening industry partnerships is a great way to help bridge existing gaps; incentivizing core subject teachers to work in tandem with technical educators could finish the job. Of course, providing more robust professional development opportunities for CTE teachers needs to be a big part of the solution as well.

And perhaps no education program could benefit more from having longitudinal data systems in place that can track students from K–-12 to higher education and into the workforce. The benefits of CTE are notoriously difficult to measure, given the typical late high school entry point for most students, and the ability to track students over time can finally establish value for the program once and for all. Once students get into the workforce, we should be able to tie them back to their schools to find out just how beneficial these programs were in helping young people achieve prosperity.

Workforce Development

Just pass a bill already. Skip the ribbons and the shiny wrapping paper—we’d be happy taking this one right out of the brown paper bag. Santa was still in high school the last time Congress authorized a comprehensive workforce development program. At this point, even he wouldn’t bother to send a displaced elven worker through this mess of a system, and have you tried to make a billion iPhones for the girls and boys of the world while understaffed? It ain’t pretty, and it’s definitely neither a “holly” nor a “jolly” good time.

Of course, if you’re going to pass a bill, you might as well do it right. After all, it’ll probably be another 30 years before we get another chance at this one, given the current pace. So let’s make sure the program retains a majority business representation on state and local workforce investment boards. Put simply, you can’t train people for jobs that aren’t available, and the only way you’re going to get it right is by supporting an employer-guided system. Let’s also make sure we’re collecting the right data and measuring success or failure the correct way. And since everyone likes having choices, let’s make sure the system allows for maximum flexibility in choosing providers. Finally, let’s enable individuals to pursue training that makes sense for them without having to jump through unnecessary hoops, and end the whole “sequence of services” nonsense once and for all.

We know time is running short for holiday shopping this year, so we realize we’re not going to get everything right away. Instead, consider this an early gift guide for 2013 and 2014. Hopefully, new holes won’t spring up in the meantime and force us to add to the list, but we’re not overly optimistic on that one.

From all of us at ICW and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, we wish you a safe and happy holidays! See you in 2013!