Rethinking 21st-Century Education

“All workers and employers would gain from a new skills marketplace, with better information, the widest possible range of providers, and students empowered to make their own choices. As people’s skills become outdated through technological advances, such a marketplace would provide a better environment for lifelong learning by helping retrain Americans in a new field of their choice.”

Ryan Streeter, Director, Domestic Policy Studies

Through empirical, data-driven research, AEI scholars are rethinking our nation’s education system — from early childhood care to K–12 and postsecondary education to career and technical education programs — to not only meet the needs of students today but also prepare them for America’s evolving workforce and the jobs of tomorrow. Over the past year, their scholarship detailed the impact of proposed higher education reforms, demonstrated how federal programs can advance state-level innovation and leadership in early childhood, and discussed what we can learn from policy reforms in education over the past two decades centered, in particular, on testing, accountability, teacher quality, and standards and how those lessons can be applied to today’s policy efforts. In addition, AEI launched a new body of research on how our education and job-training system can be more responsive, innovative, and efficient and empower learners with rich information, necessary flexibility, and sufficient means to find the education that best meets their needs.

Promoting a New Skills Marketplace

For decades, our education system has focused narrowly on increasing test scores and providing all children an opportunity to go to college. College is an excellent path for many Americans searching for upward mobility, but for others, it is not the best option. Unfortunately, for those who do not complete college, job prospects in today’s economy are worsening, and technical training and vocational education are largely ineffective or nonexistent, failing to adapt to the new realities in today’s economy.

The lack of educational opportunities has serious consequences for our society and economy. Millions of Americans are undertrained for the workforce and ill-prepared to earn their success. Meanwhile, millions of blue-collar, skilled jobs that pay well remain unfilled.

AEI scholars are promoting a new skills marketplace that better serves students and workers alike and moves US education away from outdated, conventional views of vocational training.

  New case studies debunked the myth that American education is “one size fits all.” AEI commissioned a series of case studies, “What Works: Building Skills Across America,” that highlight a diverse array of education options available to students and workers today. Specific programs studied include America’s work colleges, where students pay reduced or no tuition in exchange for participation in a comprehensive work program; the Jane Addams Resource Corporation in Chicago, a community-based nonprofit organization that provides training, credentialing, and job-placement services; and three innovative programs in Detroit, a public charter school, a four-year art and design school, and a manufacturing plant, that are housed under the same roof.

  Gov. Doug Ducey (R-AZ) headlined an AEI event in partnership with Arizona State University addressing the skills gap in America. On February 28, AEI partnered with Arizona State University for an event in Tempe, Arizona, focused on addressing the gap between the skills employers are looking for and the skills prospective employees have. John Bailey, Ryan Streeterand Andy Smarick (R Street Institute) joined Arizona State University President Michael Crow, as well as practitioners and scholars from across the country, to explore opportunities to empower workers with new skills to help them and their employers thrive in the 21st century. Gov. Doug Ducey (R-AZ) gave a keynote address, during which he stressed the importance of tackling this issue to help provide greater opportunity and economic mobility to all members of our society.

  New AEI work examined the value of higher education and how post-high-school degree programs can better equip students to find success in the job market. Before departing AEI to serve as the head of the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, AEI Visiting Scholar Mark Schneider and his coauthor Matthew Sigelman (Burning Glass Technologies) released two reports examining the value of post-high-school degrees. One discussed how we can prepare students with A.A. degrees with the skills they need to thrive in the labor market, and the second explored the prevailing wisdom about the falling value of a liberal arts degree in the labor market.

  Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos keynoted an AEI event on education reform. In January, Frederick Hess and Michael McShane hosted an event to discuss their new volume, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned (Harvard Education Press, September 2018). Authors of the volume discussed the major policy instruments that have driven recent education reform, including charter schooling, teacher quality, and incentives and inducements, and what we have learned about Washington’s role in reform. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos closed the event with a keynote address and a conversation with Hess on where education reform is headed next.

  New research addressed the unique challenges and opportunities facing the oft-overlooked rural communities throughout America. Michael McShane and Andy Smarick (R Street Institute) released a new volume, No Longer Forgotten: The Triumphs and Struggles of Rural Education in America (Rowman & Littlefield, November 2018). The volume features new research and expert analysis on the unique education challenges that rural individuals, families, and communities face — including the impact of the opioid epidemic, deindustrialization, and a lack of infrastructure — and why many school reforms that have proved successful in urban areas might not translate so easily to rural contexts.

  AEI scholars leveraged traditional and digital media to widely share analysis of the Supreme Court’s “opt-in” ruling. Following the Supreme Court’s July 2018 ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal EmployeesNat Malkus was on the front lines with analysis and commentary on what the ruling means for the future of teachers unions. He published op-eds, was quoted in a piece appearing on NPR, and was interviewed by Frederick Hess for an article in Education Next. He also discussed the decision during an episode of AEI’s podcast Banter and recorded two separate videos for AEI’s YouTube channel, including an interview with Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-IL), who was one of the people to initiate the case against the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The interview was filmed on the same day that the US Supreme Court announced the decision, and it garnered nearly 40,000 views. Gov. Rauner also joined Malkus for the first episode of The Report Card with Nat Malkus.

  AEI scholars led efforts to protect and promote free speech on college campuses. Frederick Hess’ video with Grant Addison “Free Speech on Campus: Can It Be Saved?” has been viewed more than 48,000 times on AEI’s YouTube channel and continues to spark interest from policymakers and higher education professionals. The video distills Hess’ novel policy proposal to protect free speech and open inquiry by tying federal research funding for higher education to institutions’ policies on expression and academic freedom. The proposal appeared in National Affairs in March 2018, and Hess has published related op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and RealClearPolicy, among other outlets.

  The White House looked to AEI for policy recommendations regarding student loan defaults. In August, Jason Delisle released a new report providing the first-ever comprehensive review of federal policies surrounding student loan defaults. It analyzed post-default pathways using a newly constructed federal data set of student borrowers. That same month, Delisle and former AEI Education Program Manager Grant Addison participated in meetings at the White House, hosted by Jared Kushner and the Office of American Innovation, on student loans and accountability in higher education and campus free speech and civic education, respectively. Each convening gathered academics, leading intellectuals, and administration officials to brainstorm possible actions that the Trump administration can take to address these issues.

  AEI premiered a dynamic new debate series that engaged audience members through real-time polling. In February, Nat Malkus hosted an interactive debate at AEI between economists Bryan Caplan and Eric Hanushek over whether the education system is worth the time and money invested into it. The event — which nearly 100 people attended in person and nearly 5,000 people livestreamed online — premiered a new debate format involving real-time polling of audience members.

  AEI’s early childhood program targeted federal childcare funding and offered innovative solutions to amplify the impact of current spending. In June, Katharine Stevens released a new report, “A Federal Performance Partnership for Early Childcare,” arguing that fragmentation among federal funding streams hinders state efforts to provide low-income working families with adequate access to high-quality care. She attests that a federal performance partnership offers an innovative approach to this problem by granting greater flexibility in the use of funds awarded across various funding streams. In the lead up to the report’s release, Stevens met with state leaders to share her research. In January, she served as an expert informant for a Government Accountability Office study on local, state, and federal funding for early childcare and education, and she was also asked to testify before the Washington State Legislature’s Early Learning and Human Services Committee. She has since been nominated to serve as one of 15 presidentially appointed members of the Education Department’s National Board for Education Sciences.

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