Review by Marie Dillon Dahleh
Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

The first commission on the skills of the American workforce wrote a report in 1990 entitled America’s Choice: high skills or low wages!  This book largely argues that low skilled jobs will be outsourced because it is cheaper to do this labor outside of the United States. The punch line of the first report is that the American worker must be highly skilled. This report is one of several which prompted standards based education. The second commission report, Tough Choices or Tough Times: The report of the new commission on the skills of the American workforce, takes the argument one step further. It recognizes that globalization has occurred at all skill levels. Both low and high skill jobs are either outsourced or done by machines. This idea is not new. In 2005, Thomas Friedman in his book, The World is Flat, argues that both the globalization of the workforce and the change in the business model from vertical integration to one of horizontal integration will ultimately undermine the American workforce and lower the country’s standard of living. His book warns of the impending consequences but it does not offer solutions to this problem. Touch choices or Tough Times offers a solution to the problems noted by Friedman. Essentially the commission argues that the United States must radically rethink our educational system to produce an invaluable workforce.

The main argument in the book is that in order to convince companies to use employees from the United States our workers must combine the high “…skills of our leading competitors in the core curriculum- math, science, and command of our native language…” with creativity and innovation (p. 23).  In many ways the standards based curriculum is designed to address the skills of our students in math, science and English. The new factor is the emphasis on creativity. “The crucial new factor, the one that alone can justify higher wages in this country than in other countries with similar levels of cognitive skills, is creativity and innovation” (p. 29).

There are 10 steps outlined by the commission to achieve the goal. The results of these steps should increase the quality of teachers and education from preschool through the university and beyond. Improving teacher training and the quality of math and science education are ideas which are echoed in the report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future also published in 2007. Rising Above the Gathering Storm concentrates manly on how to ensure the nations excellence in science and engineering. Touch Choices echoes the importance of science and technology for the economy (p 7). However this report is broader in that it argues that the only jobs which will stay in the United States are the ones which “creative work” (p 26- 32).  Steps (8-10) are to support continuing education for all adults. The commission believes that this is a crucial step in staying globally competitive.

The report consists of three parts. Part I presents background data for the challenges facing the US educational system. This data is a nice summary for anyone who needs to give a presentation on the current state of the US educational system. Part II gives a picture of the US educational system in 15 years if the 10 steps recommended by the commission are adopted. This is a nice exercise in how they see budgets readjusting and the possible improvements in the educational system. The final part is a collection of background papers which for the scenario work in part II.

This book is a must read for anyone involved in the educational process in the United States. It is an alarming mandate for reform.


Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century: An Agenda for American Science and Technology, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. (2007). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Friedman, T. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Tough choices or tough times: The report of the new commission on the skills of the American workforce. (2008). National Center on Education and the Economy. Review by Marie Dillon Dahleh. San Francisco, CA: Jossey- Bass 208 pp., $19.95 (paperback), ISBN # 978-0-7879-9598-0.
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