Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 2007 Issue »

    Editor's Review of Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce by the National Center on Education and the Economy.

    Shannon T. Hodge
    Full Text:

    Nearly twenty-five years after the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk, the searing report’s opening lines may be as compelling as they were then: “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983, p. 5). The report and its recommendations addressed how shortcomings in one area — the public education system — contributed to what its authors described as “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” (p. 5). While responses to the report ranged from praise for its forward thinking to criticism of its incendiary nature, many of the recommendations set forth in A Nation at Risk have made their way into the fabric of education reform. Although the commission’s recommendations were not all new ideas, the alarming statistics presented in the report sparked many policymakers to experiment with ways of intensifying high school graduation requirements, implementing rigorous standards for academic performance, and improving teacher preparation.

    Yet even with the breadth and depth of reforms made since the mid-1980s, the U.S. public education system still faces problems with achievement, excellence, and equity. This is especially the case at the secondary level, where only 75 percent of students who were in ninth grade in 2000 graduated within four years (Seastrom, Hoffman, Chapman, & Stillwell, 2006). While 80.1 percent of high-income students who graduated from high school or received GEDs in 2004 enrolled in college immediately after receiving diplomas, only 49.6 percent of their low-income counterparts did so (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). At the postsecondary level, only about half of college freshmen receive degrees within six years (Miller & Malandra, 2006).

    In the tradition of A Nation at Risk and other prominent reports that have proclaimed crises in the U.S. educational system and offered radical solutions to address them, the National Center on Education and the Economy released Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce in December 2006. The center convened this commission and invited twenty-six representatives from various sectors and multiple levels of the education system, including higher education, to consider how the education system should respond to the challenges of globalization.1 In its report, the commission sets forth a plan to ensure the country’s international competitiveness by educating all students to levels previously observed in only a few select schools. One key feature of the report that distinguishes it from previous efforts such as A Nation at Risk is that it proposes a “major overhaul” of the education system, from preschool through postsecondary education. Most of the attention in this reconfiguration is targeted at the elementary and secondary level, particularly high schools, which would undergo drastic changes to facilitate a more streamlined transition to postsecondary education or vocational preparation for the nation’s future workforce.

    While the report focuses on preK–12 issues, the commission’s recommendations place heavy demands on institutions of higher education, which would need to make substantial changes in the way they operate to align with restructured high schools. The commission itself notes, “The sea changes we propose in higher education will not happen unless the higher education community is deeply involved in the discussion” (p. 48). However, while the commission demands much from colleges and universities, Tough Choices or Tough Times fails to engage thoughtfully with the challenges currently confronting postsecondary institutions, such as access, accountability, cost, quality, and student success. In light of current state-level policy initiatives aimed at aligning educational systems from preschool through college and beyond, and considering the report’s demands on postsecondary institutions, Tough Choices or Tough Times must be considered both on its own merits and alongside the higher education community’s own challenges and vision. Just a few months prior to the release of Tough Choices or Tough Times, the federal government, through the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, released its own report on the challenges facing postsecondary education. Yet, when considered alongside the Spellings Commission’s report, the ambitious recommendations so clearly and idealistically proposed in Tough Choices or Tough Times appear problematic. Following an overview of Tough Choices or Tough Times and a discussion of its recommendation to restructure high schools, this review places the report in conversation with the findings and recommendations of the Spellings Commission, to explore whether the ambitious high school plan is feasible and actionable, given the challenges facing postsecondary institutions.

    Tough Choices or Tough Times: Reenvisioning Public Education

    In 1990, the first Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce released America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages!, calling for educational benchmarks, certificates for students not pursuing postsecondary education, and incentives for employers to support additional training and education for their workers in an effort to ensure that future U.S. workers would have the skills necessary for the country to remain internationally competitive. In Tough Choices or Tough Times, the new commission identifies a major faulty assumption of the first — specifically, that a highly skilled workforce would necessarily be a highly compensated one. This has not been realized globally, since in countries such as China and India, highly skilled employees do not always command high salaries. Thus, the new commission contends that “countries like ours that pay their workers very well have to be constantly coming up with new technologies and new ways to exploit those technologies” (p. 8). The commission lays out its plan for the way U.S. industry should function in ten years, with the majority of the routine work being carried out by people in low-wage countries and by machines across the globe. What the commission considers “creative work” — including research, development, design, marketing, and management — should fall within the domain of workers in the U.S. and similar countries.

    Not surprisingly, the commission turns to the education system to explain why the country is failing to meet this objective and therefore is at risk of not being globally competitive. It cites statistics that suggest only eighteen out of every one hundred ninth graders will earn an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. Also mentioned is the large proportion (approximately two-thirds) of college students who require remedial assistance before beginning college-level work. The commission suggests that only with at least two years of college-level work will adults be properly prepared to participate in the U.S. economy. According to the report’s projection, more than three-fourths of high school students will eventually fall short of this goal.

    In Tough Choices or Tough Times, the commission presents its solution as a future-oriented scenario, a fictionalized representation of how a system incorporating seven recommendations implemented over fifteen years would turn around the U.S. public education system by 2021. First, the U.S. would need to implement a performance-based education system, where students would complete state board qualifying examinations in the equivalent of tenth grade and then progress to either two more years of high school (for academically inclined students) or to community and some state colleges (for students who wanted to enroll in technical or vocational programs). Subsequent examinations would qualify students for four-year degree programs. Second, the nation would need to revamp the teaching profession to align professional needs and demands with “laws affecting the recruitment, licensing, employment, compensation, tenure, and retention of teachers” (p. 61). As part of this recommendation, the commission proposes a salary structure starting at $45,000 for new teachers and maxing out at $95,000 for experienced teachers (and $109,000 for experienced teachers who work longer hours over the calendar year). The third recommendation in Tough Choices or Tough Times involves removing bureaucratic oversight that may increase teacher attrition rates by contracting with independent organizations to run schools, effectively minimizing the district’s role in the day-to-day functioning of public schools. In alignment with several initiatives either already in place or being proposed, the commission also recommends ensuring that all children have access to high-quality early childhood education programs. Next, Tough Choices or Tough Times calls for a focus on equity by requiring states to fund schools directly, replacing the current system of local property taxes combined with state and federal dollars. In addition, the report calls for adopting pupil-weighted school funding formulas to allow schools serving large numbers of disadvantaged students sufficient resources to respond to their students’ needs. To build upon current standards-based reform, the commission suggests that school leaders rely on more rigorous, research-based standards and assessments to help students become creative and analytical thinkers. Finally, Tough Choices or Tough Times emphasizes the importance of lifelong learning by attending to problems with adult literacy through incentives to employers for encouraging workers to return to school to develop their skills.

    The report presents each of the recommendations summarized above from the perspective of fifteen years in the future as an already implemented, successful step toward achieving a stronger education system that supports a more competitive national economy. While the report is careful to describe the incremental nature of each implemented recommendation, one must question how the commission can be so certain that each of these seven steps will eventually be successful. Given both the criticism of the report and the lack of enthusiastic support from key players such as state education boards and teachers unions (see, e.g., McNeil, 2007; National Education Association, 2006; Ravitch, 2007), worth serious consideration is whether these recommendations are even desirable, much less attainable, or whether they merely serve a symbolic function. For example, the report’s recommendation to restructure high schools clearly responds to existing problems with secondary schools and the transition to college, but its heavy reliance on a shift in postsecondary education without any discussion of what it will take to get there reveals a substantial weakness. Although the commission speaks out against “cherry picking” ideas and instead emphasizes the systematic nature of its proposal, this review singles out the high school recommendation to illustrate the work that lies ahead.

    “Tough Choices” for High Schools

    The first and perhaps most developed recommendation set forth by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce in Tough Choices or Tough Times involves restructuring the public education system, with most of the change occurring at the high school level. Instead of the current graduation- and diploma-focused model, under the proposed system high schools would be places where students learn the skills necessary to pass their state board qualifying examinations. While no exact timetable is attached to these examinations, the commission suggests that students be prepared for them around the equivalent of tenth grade. Some students would finish high school with the successful completion of these assessments, which would cover a “core curriculum” left undefined in the report. Students would have unlimited opportunities to take and pass these tests, but without successfully completing them would not be able to move to the next stage in the system. With scores at one level, students would be able to attend community and technical colleges, as well as some four-year state colleges, without remediation. Students scoring at a higher level would be prepared to complete additional high school work in demanding Advancement Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. Upon completion of two to three years of community or technical college coursework, students would take examinations to receive technical certificates or to transfer into state colleges as juniors. Those students who completed AP or IB classes would take exams in those areas to enter college as sophomores or juniors.

    Adoption of such a system might potentially end high school as it currently exists and fundamentally change the relationship between K–12 and higher education. While the recommendations undoubtedly raise a multitude of serious concerns from various stakeholders, the report’s tone is fairly dismissive. For example, anticipating challenges from those who might believe the new system would compromise high school athletics and extracurricular activities and their roles in maintaining strong, engaged communities, the future-oriented commission offers this snapshot of how the issue was resolved by 2021:

    So, in most places, communities decided to continue to organize their competitive sports programs, school plays, school bands, and many kinds of clubs for young people around their high schools, and to encourage students to continue to participate in those programs, even when they had gone off to the local community college for their academics. A lot of issues around eligibility rules had to get ironed out to make this possible and “protect the mascots,” but eventually, everyone calmed down, high school athletics resumed the role they had always played in welding and keeping communities together, and the high school plays were still the big draw they had always been. (p. 55)

    Whether this is a realistic solution to the serious problem is dubious at best, but it clearly offers little in the way of detailed, specific recommendations to support the policymaker or school official considering the implications of adopting the proposed system.

    The commission is similarly optimistic and vague in its discussion of how the changes in secondary education might affect institutions of higher learning:

    High schools, community colleges, and technical colleges, when they realized that they were competing for the same students, did what competitors always do: they trimmed fat, improved quality, and worked harder to figure out what their customers wanted and gave it to them. (p. 55)

    While the commission that authored Tough Choices or Tough Times seems to take for granted that colleges will be highly flexible and adaptive to the changing high school structure, recent analyses of the current status of postsecondary education suggest that this segment of the education system has its own challenges and problems that need to be addressed as well.

    The Spellings Commission: Reforming Higher Education

    Just before the release of Tough Choices or Tough Times, the federal government published the final report of a commission tasked with exploring the challenges facing postsecondary education. Since both reports address U.S. education across levels, and because their recommendations have substantial implications for both secondary and postsecondary education, it is helpful to consider them together. Doing so calls into question Tough Choices or Tough Times’s heavy reliance on support from postsecondary education institutions to address problems in preK–12 education.

    In October 2005, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings convened the first meeting of a commission “charged with developing a comprehensive national strategy for postsecondary education that will meet the needs of America’s diverse population and also address the economic and workforce needs of the country’s future” (U.S. Department of Education [DOE], 2005). This governmental commission’s task of exploring the connection between the economy and education was similar to that of the private commission that produced Tough Choices or Tough Times. In fact, some of the rhetoric is similar, as the Spellings Commission declares in its September 2006 report, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education: “In tomorrow’s world a nation’s wealth will derive from its capacity to educate, attract, and retain citizens who are able to work smarter and learn faster — making educational achievement ever more important both for individuals and for society writ large” (DOE, 2006, p. xii), echoing similar sentiments from Tough Choices or Tough Times. The two commissions’ visions for education are also similar, as the higher education group proclaims interests in “global competitiveness” (p. xi), lifelong learning, better instruction, worker skill development, and quality for-profit providers.

    The Spellings Commission synthesizes the findings from fifteen issue papers produced for the group’s consideration into six main areas: access, cost and affordability, financial aid, learning, transparency and accountability, and innovation. Most of the information conveyed in the report is also discussed elsewhere in the field. The differential rates of bachelor’s degree attainment for White (34%), Black (17%), and Latino (10%) adults are documented and discussed in research and literature. The soaring costs of college attendance and the overly complicated financial aid system are also hot topics in the higher education community. What this commission’s report contributes is the recognition that many of these pressing issues have gone unnoticed by the public at large: “We remained so far ahead of our competitors for so long, however, that we began to take our postsecondary superiority for granted. The results of this inattention, though little known to many of our fellow citizens, are sobering” (DOE, 2006, p. ix). Building on this recognition, the Spellings Commission offers recommendations that include increasing college access through attention to preparation and barriers, completely restructuring the financial aid system, collaborating with K–12 institutions, focusing on college responsibility and public accountability for student success, implementing cost-cutting measures, and embracing innovation.

    When considered together, Tough Choices or Tough Times and A Test of Leadership reveal that the two commissions that produced these reports have both complementary and conflicting visions for how the U.S. education system should be transformed to achieve a better economy. To a large extent, both reports represent tremendous shifts in their respective arenas. If implemented, the recommendations set forth in A Test of Leadership would change the landscape of higher education, perhaps to the level of reenvisioning imagined at the secondary level in Tough Choices or Tough Times. As to more specific similarities between the commissions’ reports, both view AP and IB courses as college-level work in which academically prepared high school students should engage to experience advanced material at an earlier age, to replace inadequate high school curricula, and to facilitate the transition to college. Additionally, both commissions encourage the use of standardized assessments to determine when students are prepared for college or the workforce, although the Spellings Commission does not go so far as to suggest the type of massive testing system advocated for by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.

    However, the commissions’ recommendations also diverge on several key points. Perhaps most important, while A Test of Leadership acknowledges that the higher education system is confronting challenges and crises of its own, Tough Choices or Tough Times overlooks these weighty issues, essentially conveying an assumption that these institutions can prioritize K–12 concerns and easily adapt as necessary. College quality is not presented as a serious issue in the latter report, while the Spellings Commission declares, “It is time to be frank. Among the vast and varied institutions that make up U.S. higher education, we have found much to applaud but also much that requires urgent reform” (DOE, 2006, p. ix).

    Noticeably, the higher education report suggests that the nation needs clearer pathways among educational levels, while the more K–12-oriented report presents a complex menu of schooling options. By emphasizing a simplified path from high school to college, the Spellings Commission’s recommendation responds directly to its concerns about college access and equity. In contrast, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce’s suggestion attends to its own interests in excellence and global competitiveness. In other words, the reports are somewhat at odds with regard to the transition from high school to college because differentiating students’ academic pathways in secondary school, as Tough Choices recommends, may not further the Spellings Commission’s goal of improving equal access to higher education.

    Further, the Spellings Commission directly focuses on the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, which are not explicitly discussed in Tough Choices or Tough Times. Additionally, part of the cost-cutting measures recommended in A Test of Leadership involves teaching college-level courses in high schools, while this change would only be implemented for more academically engaged high school students under the recommendations outlined in Tough Choices or Tough Times. The latter advocates sending some students (those interested in vocational and technical programs or who want to attend certain four-year state colleges) into the higher education system immediately after tenth grade. Finally, the higher education commission considers the high school diploma a signal that students are prepared for college or work, while the K–12 group supplants this responsibility of the diploma with qualifying and transfer examinations.

    While there are areas of divergence, the two reports are not wholly incompatible. With similar goals, some commonalities, and similar rhetoric, the two sets of recommendations together might lead to a truly reenvisioned, hierarchically aligned U.S. public education system. To see its vision enacted, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce must engage the higher education community in thoughtful discussions while continuing to develop its own strategy.

    Moving Beyond “Policy Talk”

    In the span of four months, two separate commissions presented their own agendas, framed as recommendations for completely reinventing the U.S. education system. One focused on public education from prekindergarten through college and beyond, and the other focused primarily on higher education and, to a lesser extent, high school. Jointly or individually, these reports are examples of what education historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban (1995) call policy talk — that is, “diagnoses of problems and advocacy of solutions” (p. 40). If education professionals and policymakers support these recommendations, then to ensure the country’s economic competitiveness and stability, the policy talk of these reports must be transformed into policy action — or the “adoption of reforms — through state legislation, school board regulations, or decisions by other authorities” (p. 40). However, the ultimate success of education reform lies in the implementation of “planned change in schools,” when policy talk and action actually become practice (p. 40).

    In April 2007, Eli Broad and Bill Gates announced a $60 million partnership aimed at moving education to the forefront of the 2008 presidential debate. This money comes on top of the $2 billion these philanthropists have already invested in the U.S. public education system (Herszenhorn, 2007). How can reports like Tough Choices or Tough Times compete for political attention in such an environment? How can the recommendations successfully move from policy talk to implementation in an environment where private foundations often steer public education reform?

    In Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, Tyack and Cuban (1995) offer four descriptions of the types of reforms that have most often persisted in the history of education reform. They tended to be structural additions that did not interfere with schools’ regular functioning, were acceptable as “non-controversial” to decisionmaking bodies, were supported by “influential constituencies,” and were both legally mandated and “easily monitored” (pp. 57–58). Unfortunately, the odds do not look favorable for Tough Choices or Tough Times. Not only does the authoring commission propose dramatic strategies to completely revamp the entire public education system, but it also suggests reforms at a scale that may make meaningful monitoring and evaluation difficult at best. The minimal presence of teacher representatives on the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce suggests that constituent support was not a major consideration in the report’s strategic development, but given the enormity of the report’s recommendations, teacher support is a vital necessity. Unfortunately, by Tyack and Cuban’s schema and given the challenges faced by the higher education system, the reforms framed in Tough Choices or Tough Times and the idealistic scenario described for the year 2021 may not be realizable. At a minimum, anyone wishing to act on these recommendations would need to spend considerable time generating a thoughtful, planned implementation strategy.

    As a presentation of policy talk and a provocative vision for public education, Tough Choices or Tough Times succeeds. As a group of experienced, informed education professionals, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce succeeds in depicting a sophisticated, idealized education system that meets the needs of every individual student and school and deftly overcomes every challenge and hindrance, all within the next fifteen years. However, in presenting a framework that policymakers, educators, the higher education community, and the public can envision and will support, the commission has much more work to accomplish than may be feasibly achieved, even by 2021.


    1. Members of the commission included federal, state, and local government officials; current and former school district superintendents; representatives from colleges and universities; and leaders of nonprofit organizations.


    Herszenhorn, D. M. (2007, April 25). Billionaires start $60 million school effort. The New York Times, p. 21.

    McNeil, M. (2007, January 10). School proposals in “Tough Choices” report could face frosty reception from states. Education Week, pp. 1, 19.

    Miller, C., & Malandra, G. (2006). The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, issue paper: Accountability/Assessment. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved April 23, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports/miller-malandra.pdf

    National Center for Education Statistics. (2006). The condition of education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved April 3, 2007, from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/statement/index.asp

    National Center on Education and the Economy. (1990). America’s choice: High skills or low wages! [Report of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce]. Washington, DC. Retrieved November 7, 2007, from http://www.skillscommission.org/pdf/High_SkillsLow_Wages.pdf

    National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

    National Education Association. (2006). NEA calls for frank, open dialogue on Tough choices or tough times. Retrieved April 25, 2007, from http://www.nea.org/newsreleases/2006/nr061214.html

    Ravitch, D. (2007, January 17). “Tough choices”: Radical ideas, misguided assumptions [Commentary]. Education Week, pp. 44, 32–33.

    Seastrom, M., Hoffman, L., Chapman, C., & Stillwell, R. (2006). The averaged freshman graduation rate for public high schools from the Common Core of Data: School years 2002–03 and 2003–04. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

    Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    U.S. Department of Education. (2005). Secretary Spellings announces new Commission on the Future of Higher Education [Press release]. Retrieved April 25, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/print/news/pressreleases/2005/09/09192005.html

    U.S. Department of Education. (2006). A test of leadership: Charting the future of U.S. higher education. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved April 7, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports/final-report.pdf
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    Winter 2007 Issue


    Equity and Access in Higher Education
    The Editors
    Community Colleges as Gateways and Gatekeepers
    Moving beyond the Access “Saga” toward Outcome Equity
    Alicia C. Dowd
    College Admissions in Twenty-First-Century America
    The Role of Grades, Tests, and Games of Chance
    Rebecca Zwick
    Test-Optional Admission at a Liberal Arts College
    A Founding Mission Affirmed
    Brian J. Shanley
    Expanding Equal Opportunity
    The Princeton Experience with Financial Aid
    Shirley M. Tilghman
    Is Teaching for Social Justice Undemocratic?
    Eric B. Freedman
    From Visibility to Autonomy
    Latinos and Higher Education in the U.S., 1965–2005
    Victoria-María MacDonald, John M. Botti, and Lisa Hoffman Clark

    Book Notes

    The Knowledge Deficit
    By E.D. Hirsch Jr.

    Case Studies of Minority Student Placement in Special Education
    By Beth Harry, Janette K. Klingner, Elizabeth P. Cramer, with Keith M. Sturges and Robert F. Moore.

    Qualities of Effective Teachers, Second Edition
    By James H. Stronge

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.