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Monday, March 26, 2007

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Executive Director's Column

NASAA Executive Director Jonathan Katz

Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce is the title of a report from the National Center on Education and the Economy, produced after a research project of almost two years was conducted in 14 countries by 19 staff. Dr. Susan Sclafani, a member of the Commission and formerly Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education and Counselor to the Secretary of Education, recently presented the premises and recommendations of this report to the Steering Committee of the Arts Education Partnership.

I value the presentation and the report enough to summarize them with you here, because (1) they seem to me to represent the scope of systemic change--not tinkering--necessary to address what everyone acknowledges are the serious problems confounding the current system of education in the U.S., (2) they place appropriate emphasis on the imaginative competencies a 21st-century education system must provide in a global work place and they understand learning in the arts as integral in that provision, and (3) they assign appropriate responsibilities to levels of government and the other sectors, understanding the special responsibility for education at the state level that is a tenet of U.S. public policy. I hope NOTES readers will find the following outline useful in shaping and positioning the policies they will advance related to the role of arts learning in education.

Research findings cited in this report support the assertion that American product development and innovation will be less and less competitive globally as a result of the current, outmoded, education system. Premium wages and jobs at every skill level will go to workforces capable of maintaining a lead in technology and "the new industries that new technologies generate." But, the Commission argues, technological skill alone is insufficient to maintain such a lead:

It depends on a deep vein of creativity that is constantly renewing itself, and on a myriad of people who can imagine how people can use things that have never been available before, create ingenious marketing and sales campaigns, write books, build furniture, make movies, and imagine new kinds of software that will capture people's imagination and become indispensable to millions.

For what kind of business world must our education prepare us?

A world in which routine work is largely done by machines is a world in which mathematical reasoning will be no less important than math facts, in which line workers who cannot contribute to the design of the products they are fabricating may be as obsolete as the last model of that product, . . . in which software engineers who are also musicians and artists will have an edge over those who are not as the entertainment industry evolves . . . .

What kind of workers will employers the world over be looking for--and willing to pay premium wages?

Strong skills in English, mathematics, technology, and science, as well as literature, history, and the arts will be essential for many; beyond this, candidates will have to be comfortable with ideas and abstractions, good at both analysis and synthesis, creative and innovative, self-disciplined and well organized, able to learn very quickly and work well as a member of a team and have the flexibility to adapt quickly to frequent changes in the labor market as the shifts in the economy become ever faster and more dramatic.

The Commission argues further that the current American education system is not designed to produce a workforce competitive in a dynamic, highly technological, global environment. Basic problems they cite include:

The Commission believes American education must be standards-based, but radically changed in ten basic ways, among which are:

The Commission acknowledges that components of its recommendations are costly, but argues that scrapping current inefficiencies will provide $60 billion for redeployment and that maintaining the status quo makes ongoing loss of jobs and wealth inevitable. State approaches to legislation, investment, collective bargaining and administration would undoubtedly vary, and, as with cultural policy, could function as a national laboratory if networked and studied with sufficient resources. The report's 20-page executive summary is online at http://www.skillscommission.org/executive.htm. Background research and report materials can be found at www.skillscommission.org. As always, I welcome your comments, suggestions and questions in response to this column.