The Skills Message Washington Will Ignore

There hasn’t been a formal announcement yet, but multiple sources inform me that Senator Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) will be unveiling their long-anticipated preschool education bill, based on President Obama’s Preschool for All proposal, on November 13th  or 14th—with, in all likelihood, a really big Capitol Hill event to go along with it.

I mention this because the next big PIAAC report release—the OECD’s in-depth analysis of the U.S. data—is set for release on November 12th (see: www.piaacgateway.com). It’s a near certainty that the hoopla over the preschool bill—a major priority of both the President and Sen. Harkin—will completely preoccupy the administration that week, and dominate the attention span of both lawmakers and pundits.

I also wonder if the introduction of this legislation also makes the prospects for Workforce Investment Act (WIA – the source of most federal adult education funding) reauthorization a little shakier, although there is a going to be a major push this month by advocates to get the Senate bill that was passed late last summer to the Senate floor for a vote this fall. But the preschool bill makes the already overstuffed House and Senate education agenda even more crowded, as almost every major piece of federal education legislation is overdue for reauthorization. Higher education is getting a lot of attention at the moment, for example.

And that’s on top of all the wrangling on the budget, and other high-profile items, like immigration reform. (At a conference I attended yesterday at Georgetown Law School, while it was made pretty clear that the prospects for an immigration reform bill getting through this Congress still aren’t all that great, work continues on immigration bills in the House—and clearly some Republicans want to keep this issue in the spotlight.)

So, if you’re an adult education advocate, be prepared for a frustrating week mid-November. You’ll be hearing a lot from pre-K proponents about the economic benefits of investing in preschool. Meanwhile, the new evidence showing that the basic skills of the current American workforce significantly lag behind much of the rest of the industrialized world will largely be ignored. If you believe that the American economy can’t wait another 15 or 20 years for pre-K to provide us with a more highly skilled workforce, you are going to have to make your voices  louder than ever over the next few weeks and months.

Finally, I mentioned this the other day, but it bears repeating: the countries that get this right don’t make it an either/or proposition: they invest in early education and provide meaningful lifelong learning opportunities for adults too. From OECD’s initial summary analysis of the findings (page 13):

The impressive progress that some countries have made in improving the skills of their population over successive generations shows what can be achieved. These countries have established systems that combine high-quality initial education with opportunities and incentives for the entire population to continue to develop proficiency in reading and numeracy skills, whether outside work or at the workplace, after initial education and training are completed.  (my emphasis)