Five Questions with John Bailey

Q: You’ve spent part of your career focused on education reform policy. What is the state of education in America today -  in particular, where have we made gains and where are we still lagging behind?

It’s a mixed picture.  Graduation rates are at an all-time high.  Reading and math scores have inched up slowly.  More than 30 states offer school choice programs, up from only nine just a decade ago.  And 43 states and D.C. have charter school laws. These policies are allowing creating pathways for new models of education to help meet different student needs. 
 
But there are also large groups of students still being left behind.   Among high school seniors, just 7% of African American students and 12% of Hispanic students scored proficient in math. Only one in 10 students from low-income families will graduate from college by their mid-20s.  And the U.S. still lags many other nations in reading, math, and science. 
 
Those are worrisome trends because education is so critical for expanding individual opportunity, particularly in helping break generational poverty. The question really isn’t if we’re improving, but are we improving fast enough to help ensure this generation of students are able to secure good paying jobs in tomorrow’s economy.  It’s clear we need to do better.

Q:  Your work as a visiting fellow at AEI is focused on “re-skilling” workers who have lost their jobs.  What is the most effective approach, and can you give us an example or two of places in the country where displaced workers have transitioned effectively to new jobs? 

Globalization and Artificial Intelligence-fueled automation are rapidly transforming entire industries. While trade and automation are good overall for the economy and for individuals, there are some workers who bear the brunt of the downside of disruption.  And too often they encounter an Industrial Age era safety net insufficient for helping them transition through these 21st century shocks. 
 
Workers will have to constantly re-skill and up-skill in order to stay competitive and also transition to better paying jobs.  There are some impressive new models emerging from the private sector, from coding boot camps like General Assembly to online college courses offered through Coursera.  A number of states, such as South Carolina, are seeing impressive results from apprenticeships. Some community colleges such as Washtenaw Community College are working with businesses to create new courses related to autonomous driving vehicles. 
 
The challenge for policymakers is ensuring our job training and education policies have the flexibility to accommodate all of these different approaches.

Q:  Some are saying that this wave of automation is different and that AI is going to eliminate millions of jobs.  Is that a fair warning or hype? 

Both sides overstate their case.  AI will destroy some jobs, but inevitably create many new ones.  And most importantly, it will redefine many existing jobs which will incorporate technology as part of the day to day work.  We see that in a small way with “hybrid” jobs like digital marketing that combines digital skills with marketing to create an entirely new job. 
 
The problem with the hysteria focused on how many jobs AI might destroy is that it misses the bigger challenge. We don’t have a comprehensive system in place to prepare workers to have the skills needed to secure or transition into the millions of new jobs AI will create.  We’re already seeing that the fastest job growth and largest income gains go to those with higher levels of skills and education.
 
The challenge ahead of us is modernizing our institutions and public financing to help workers take advantage of opportunities to update their skills.  That will require rethinking federal financial aid as well as rethinking programs such as the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program.

Q:  What is your favorite memory from your time in the Administration?

So many come to mind that it is difficult to pick one. My favorite memories are really ones of gratitude – for the opportunity to serve the country, to work with and learn from such a talented group of leaders, and to be able to make my own small contribution to the agenda. 
 
I was proudest of the reforms we put in place to stabilize the student loan markets during the credit crisis as well as the work we did to advance immigration reform.

Q:  What lessons from your time in the Administration have most influenced your daily life and work today?

One key lesson I took away is the importance of having a robust debate about policies and options and to invite differing opinions.  That can sometimes be difficult and uncomfortable, but is the best way to prevent groupthink and find the best solution. 
 
I also frequently reflect on the President’s centeredness and humility, particularly when it came to what government could and could not do.  He often said that, “Government can hand out money, but it cannot put hope in a person’s heart or a sense of purpose in a person’s life.” That is a useful principle in general but even more so today when there is a need to recommit and reinvigorate community and civic institutions.