The New Three R’s: Reinvestment, Reinvention, Responsibility

Money, creativity, and accountability are all essential to develop the high-quality schools and teachers we will need in the new century.

As we enter the 21st century and a global knowledge-based economy, the United States has never been more free or full of opportunity than it is today. The extraordinary technological advances of our time have contributed in large part to the peace, progress, and prosperity we are now experiencing. But those same advances are also challenging us in new and different ways. Unlike the Industrial Age, when career trajectories were predictable and jobs often lasted a lifetime, the path to upward mobility and real security in the Information Age is filled with blind curves. In order to expand opportunities for our citizens, they must be equipped with the tools to navigate this changing course and adapt to the demands of the New Economy.

The number of people employed in industries that are either big producers or intensive users of information technology is expected to double between the mid-1990s and 2006. If more Americans are to translate their own piece of the American dream into a better life, they not only need to have a mastery of the basics in reading, writing, and mathematics, they must be fluent in the grammar of information, literate in technology, and versed in a broad range of skills to adjust to the various needs of the different jobs they are likely to hold.

Our labor force is remarkably productive and, together with advances in technology, has been central to the unprecedented run of sustained growth we have had over the past decade. But the indicators about tomorrow are less encouraging. Despite recent downturns in dot-com company stock values and employment, we have been experiencing a serious skills shortage across the economy. The number of students receiving undergraduate degrees in engineering has declined since the mid-1980s, and Congress has had to increase the number of H1B visas for noncitizens with specialized skills to 195,000 a year. Of equal concern are the indicators about the quality of our public elementary and secondary schools, America’s common cradle of equal opportunity. Excellent schools and dedicated principals and teachers exist throughout the nation. But the hard truth is that we are not providing many of our children with the quality education they deserve and that the New Economy requires.

We can turn these worrisome indicators around and help prepare our citizens to meet the new challenges of this new age. But to do so, our public institutions–governmental and educational–must concentrate their resolve and resources on changing the way we teach and train our labor force. We must pursue innovative policies and programs to facilitate and accelerate that transformation. And we must harness the science and technologies that are revolutionizing our economy to help us revolutionize the learning process.

As I traveled the country during the presidential campaign last year, it became even clearer to me that our education system is of widespread concern. Officials at all levels of government, parents, and business and education leaders worry that our children are not being adequately prepared for the future. The public education system is on the brink of a fundamental test: Can it adapt to a rapidly changing environment? Can it be reformed or reinvented to meet the demands of the New Economy?

Money alone won’t solve our problems, but the hard fact is that we cannot expect to reinvigorate our schools without it. If education is to be a priority, it must be funded as such. But money can no longer be dispersed without return, and that return must be in the form of improved academic results. States not only should be setting standards for raising academic achievement, they should be expected to show annual progress towards achieving these standards for all children or suffer real consequences. Most important, the persistent achievement gap between economically struggling students and those more affluent must be narrowed.

Congress’s role

In Congress, we have been grappling with these issues in the context of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which governs most federal K-12 programs outside of special education. Today, almost $18 billion in annual federal aid flows through the ESEA to state and local education authorities annually. If we can reformulate the way we distribute those dollars based on need and peg our national programs to performance instead of process, we will begin to encourage states and local school districts to reinvest, reinvent, and reinvigorate.

Together with other New Democrats in the Senate and House, I have been working to forge a bipartisan approach to K-12 education. The Public Education Reinvestment, Reinvention and Responsibility Act (S. 303), or “Three R’s” for short, was introduced in Spring 2000, reintroduced in February 2001, and is based on a reform proposal drafted by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), the in-house think tank of the Democratic Leadership Council, which I have chaired for the past six years. President Bush has articulated a set of priorities that overlap significantly with our New Democratic proposal. I am therefore hopeful that we can reach agreement with the administration on a bold, progressive, and comprehensive education reform bill this year.

The Three R’s bill calls on states and local districts to enter into a compact with the federal government to strengthen standards, raise teacher quality, and improve educational opportunities in exchange for modernizing thousands of old and overcrowded schools and training and hiring 2 million new teachers, particularly for the nation’s poorest children. The bill would boost ESEA funding by $35 billion over the next five years and would streamline and consolidate the current maze of federal education programs into distinct categories, each with more money and fewer strings attached.

First, the bill would enhance our longstanding commitment to providing extra help to disadvantaged children, increasing Title I funding by 50 percent to $13 billion, while better targeting aid to schools with the highest concentrations of poor students. We cannot ignore the reality that severe inequities in educational opportunities continue to exist. An original rationale for federal involvement in elementary and secondary education was to level the playing field and provide better educational resources to disadvantaged children. Yet, remarkably, Title I funds reach only two-thirds of the children eligible for services, because the money is spread too thinly.

To complicate matters, despite a decade of unprecedented economic growth, one out of five American children still lives below the poverty line, and we know from research that these children are more likely to fail academically. Likewise, a strong concentration of poverty among the students at any one school can be harmful to the academic performance of all students at that school. Funding needs to be better targeted to counteract this problem. Research shows that although 95 percent of schools with a poverty level of 75 percent to 100 percent receive Title I funding, one in five schools with poverty in the 50 to 75 percent range receive no Title I funds. The first section of the Three R’s legislation is designed to target additional resources to the schools and districts that need them most.

We are punishing many children by forcing them to attend chronically troubled schools that are accountable to no one.

Our bill also addresses teacher quality. At schools in high poverty areas, 65 percent of teachers in physical sciences, 60 percent of history teachers, 43 percent of mathematics teachers, and 40 percent of life sciences teachers are teaching “out of field.” Recent data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Repeat study found that in 1999, U.S. eighth graders were less likely to be taught by teachers who were trained in math or science than were their international counterparts. We know that teachers cannot teach what they themselves do not understand. Although we are grateful for the skilled and dedicated teachers who inspire so many of our students, we need to do more to attract the best people into teaching, prepare them effectively, and pay them very well.

We believe that teachers should be treated as the professionals they are, so the Three R’s bill combines various teacher training and professional development programs into a single teacher quality grant, doubling the funding to $2 billion and challenging each state to pursue bold performance-based reforms such as the one my home state has implemented. Connecticut’s BEST program, building on previous efforts to raise teacher skills and salaries, targets additional state aid, training, and mentoring support to help local districts nurture new teachers–setting high performance standards both for teachers and for those who train them, helping novices meet those standards, and holding the ones who don’t accountable. Connecticut has received the highest marks from Education Week’s Quality Counts 2001 report, and its blueprint is touted by some, including the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, as a national model.

The Three R’s bill calls on states to ensure that all teachers demonstrate competency in the subject areas in which they are teaching. And we are calling for an increase in partnerships with higher education and the business sector to help in the recruitment and training of teachers, especially in mathematics and science.

In the area of bilingual education, the Three R’s legislation would reform the federal program, triple its funding by adding $1 billion, and defuse the controversy surrounding it by making absolutely clear that our national mission is to help immigrant children learn and master English, as well as to achieve high standards in all core subjects. English is rapidly becoming the international language of science and mathematics as well as commerce, and a strong command of the language will better enable U.S. students to compete in the global as well as the domestic economy.

Public demand for greater choice within the public school framework is another central part of the Three R’s bill. Additional resources are provided for charter school startups and for new incentives to expand intradistrict school choice programs. These are important means to introduce competitive market forces into a system that cries out for change. The bill would also roll the remaining federal programs into a broad-ranging innovation category and increase federal educational innovation funding to $3.5 billion. States and local districts would be free to focus additional resources on their specific priorities, whether they are extending the learning day, integrating information technology, or developing advanced academic programs such as discovery-based science and high-level mathematics courses. At the same time, school districts would be encouraged to experiment with innovative approaches to meeting their needs.

Introducing accountability

The boldest change that we are proposing is to create a new environment of accountability. As of today, we have plenty of requirements for how funding is to be allocated and who must be served. But little if any attention is paid to how schools ultimately perform in educating children. The Three R’s plan would reverse that imbalance by linking federal funding to academic achievement. It would call on state and local leaders to set specific performance standards and adopt rigorous assessments for measuring how each school district is meeting those goals. In turn, states that exceed the goals would be rewarded with additional funds, and those that repeatedly fail to show progress would be penalized. In other words, for the first time there would be consequences for poor performance.

The value of accountability standards lies in the improvement we hope to make in U.S. students’ science and math performance as compared to that of international competitors and in closing a pernicious learning gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Although U.S. students score above the international average in mathematics and science at the fourth-grade level, by the end of high school, they do far worse. TIMSS showed that, in general mathematics, students in 14 of 21 nations outperformed U.S. students in the final year of high school. In general science, students in 11 of 21 countries outperformed U.S. students. Alarmingly, in both subjects, students in the United States performed better than their counterparts in only two countries: Cyprus and South Africa. Even our best students fare poorly when compared with their international counterparts. U.S. 12th-grade advanced science students performed below 14 of 16 countries on the TIMSS physics assessment. Indeed, advanced mathematics and physics students failed to outperform students in any other country.

Money alone won’t solve our problems, but the hard fact is that we cannot expect to reinvigorate our schools without it.

Under the Three R’s bill, states will be held accountable for developing and meeting mathematics and reading standards. And for the first time, we would demand science standards and assessments. States, local districts, and schools would have to develop annual numerical performance goals to ensure that all children are proficient in these core subjects within 10 years.

It is extremely troubling that millions of poor children, particularly children of color, are failing to learn even the basics. Thirty-five years after we passed the ESEA specifically to aid disadvantaged students, black and Hispanic 12th graders are reading and performing math problems on average at the same level as white 8th graders. This gap must be bridged if we are to compete in a global economy or excel at science and engineering here at home.

Understandable concerns have been raised about whether we can penalize failing schools without also penalizing children. The truth is that we are punishing many children by forcing them to attend chronically troubled schools that are accountable to no one. We have attempted to minimize the negative consequences for students by requiring states to set annual performance-based goals and to implement a system for identifying low-performing districts and schools. While providing additional resources for low performers, our bill also would take corrective action if they fail to improve. If after three years a state has consistently failed to meet its goals, it would have its administrative funding cut by 50 percent. After four years of under-performance, dollars targeted for the classroom would be jeopardized.

The Three R’s plan is a common-sense strategy to address our educational dilemma by reinvesting in problem schools, reinventing the way we administer educational programs, and reviving a sense of responsibility to the children who are supposed to be learning. Our approach is modest enough to recognize that there are no easy answers to improving performance, lifting teaching standards, and closing a debilitating achievement gap. But it’s ambitious enough to try to use our ability to frame the national debate and recast the role of the federal government as an active catalyst for success instead of a passive enabler of failure.

Recruiting more scientists and engineers

Let me add a final word on our nation’s ability to remain competitive in today’s global knowledge-based economy. To do so, we need to produce more highly trained scientists and engineers for a variety of jobs and to increase the number of people who are technologically literate across all occupations. The Department of Labor projects that new science, engineering, and technical jobs will increase by 51 percent between 1998 and 2008–roughly four times higher than average job growth rates. Yet, the Council on Competitiveness and many tech industry leaders have identified talent shortfalls as a serious problem. A solution rests in our ability to better educate our own children in K-12 to prepare them for the study of science and engineering in college and beyond. Business leaders from the National Alliance of Business, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers have sounded the alarm for improved elementary and secondary education.

We need to develop creative new ways to increase the undergraduate science and engineering talent pool, including women and minorities.

In this high-tech high-competition era, fewer low-skill industrial jobs will be available, whereas higher premiums will be placed on knowledge and critical thinking. More than 60 percent of new jobs will be in industries where workers will need to have at least some postsecondary education. The United States has an excellent higher education system, but many of the scientists and engineers we train are foreign students who increasingly return to their own countries. Furthermore, European and Asian nations are educating a greater proportion of their college-age population in natural sciences and engineering and may not continue to send their top students to study and work here in the future. In Japan, more than 60 percent of students earn their first university degrees in science and engineering fields, and in China over 70 percent do. In contrast, only about one-third of U.S. bachelor-level degrees are in science and engineering fields, and these are mainly in the social sciences or life sciences. The number of undergraduate degrees in engineering, the physical sciences, and mathematics has been level or declining in the United States since the late 1980s.

Together with my colleagues in Congress, I will be examining ways to attract and retain more students into science and engineering at the undergraduate level. Last year, the Senate passed legislation (S.296) that I cosponsored with Senators Frist (R-Tenn.) and Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to authorize a doubling of federal R&D funding in the nondefense agencies over the next decade. These R&D funds not only support research, they fund mentor-based training for graduate students. But this is not enough. We need to develop creative new ways to increase the undergraduate science and engineering talent pool, and that includes increased rates of participation by women and minorities. The foundation for tackling this problem lies in our elementary and secondary schools. The Three R’s bill will go a long way to ensure that all children are prepared to enter college with a good educational foundation in reading, mathematics, and science. We can do no less if we want to continue to be competitive in the 21st century.

Recommended Reading

  • Education Week, Quality Counts 2001: A Better Balance (Education Week/Pew Charitable Trusts, 2001).
  • David Grissmer, Ann Flanagan, Jennifer Kawata, and Stephanie Williamson, Improving Student Achievement: What State NAEP Test Scores Tell Us (Rand, 2000).
  • R. Ingersoll, “The Problem of Underqualified Teachers in American Secondary Schools,” Educational Researcher 28, no. 2 (March 1999): 26­37.
  • National Center for Education Statistics, NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress (U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement, August 2000).
  • National Center for Education Statistics, Pursuing Excellence: Comparisons of International Eighth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement from a U.S. Perspective, 1995 and 1999 (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Education Statistics, 2001).
  • National Science Board, Preparing Our Children: Math and Science Education in the National Interest (Arlington, Va.: National Science Foundation, March 1999).
  • Wayne Riddle and James Stedman, Elementary and Secondary Education: Reconsideration of the Federal Role by the 107th Congress (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, January 2, 2001).
  • Andrew Rotherham, “The New Three R’s of Education,” Blueprint: Ideas for a New Century (Democratic Leadership Council, Winter 2001).
  • Andrew Rotherham, Toward Performance-Based Federal Education Funding: Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Progressive Policy Institute, April 1999).
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Cite this Article

Lieberman, Joseph I. “The New Three R’s: Reinvestment, Reinvention, Responsibility.” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 3 (Spring 2001).

Vol. XVII, No. 3, Spring 2001