21st Century Skills with a 21st Century Vision

Earlier this year, Eduflack got into a very heated offline “discussion” with a reader about the role of the American high school.  Personally, I believe it is the role of every public high school in the United States to help prepare every student for the challenges and opportunities before them, be it in education, the workforce, or life.  That means relevant courses, a focus on preparation, and the recognition that virtually every student today needs some form of postsecondary education to succeed in the 21st century workplace.

My treasured reader, a professor at an institution of higher learning, took issue with my notion of high schools (and colleges) as “trade schools.”  To him, career preparation came later, and well after a student had secured a good traditional liberal arts education, both in the secondary and postsecondary environment.
For the past two years, I’ve worked closely with organizations on STEM (science-tech-engineering-math) education.  For the past five years, I’ve worked just as hard on high school redesign and high school improvement.  If I’ve learned anything from these experiences, it is that it is never too early to begin to engage students on their futures and equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.  Even with our focus on high school improvement, I hear in more and more states we should be starting in middle school, and not wait for high school.  If we don’t prepare today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow TODAY, they will never be prepared.
This isn’t a new concept.  Back in the 1980s, the SCANS Commission believed much of the same thing.  And as we’ve seen a greater focus on high schools and STEM in recent years, it has taken center stage. It’s all been helped along by the Gates Foundation, Jobs for the Future, the American Diploma Project, and other such programs at the national, state, and local levels.
Now, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has gotten in the mix, and they are taking the fight directly to the state level — exactly where it needs to be to make a lasting impact.  Working with nine states, the Partnership is helping its project states to work through the skills, curricula, and standards for success.  The full story on this initiative can be found over at Education Week — www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/10/15/08skills.h28.html?tmp=982428651  
Do we need this shift and this added attention?  You betcha.  American public schools — particularly our high schools — need to become incubators for creating the workforce of tomorrow.  That means equipping them with the skills and knowledge they need, not just for today’s jobs, but for tomorrow’s as well.
It is an unfortunate reality that many of today’s high schools are built on an instructional model that is 50, maybe even 100, years old.  Then, it assumed all kids would find jobs.  A third of them would do so after graduating high school and going on to college.  A third would move directly to the workforce with their high school diploma.  And a third would leave high school before completion, contributing to the economy at an early age.
No one believes that model holds today.  Every student needs some form of postsecondary education, whether it four-year college, two-year college, or workforce training program.  Virtually every employer will tell you that a high school diploma is not sufficient for a long-term career (at least that’s what I’ve learned from surveys I’ve done with the business community in many states).  And skills — particularly math, literacy, problem-solving, and teamwork — are non-negotiables in today’s economy.
We look at the economy and at the national unemployment rate, and we wonder what the future holds, both for us and for our kids.  One thing is certain, a worker with relevant, up-to-date skills has a far better chance of staying employed than one with out-of-date skills or none at all.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills recognizes that, and now they are working with nine states to put this vision into practice.  Here’s hoping for scalable solutions we can continue to model.

One thought on “21st Century Skills with a 21st Century Vision

  1. This was a great article and one in which I completely agree with. My issue is that before our students can learn 21 century skills our teachers must be taught to use the technologies that are so readily available. Teachers must break out of the “this is the way I learned and this is the way you are going to learn” mold. With advances in technology and a changing corporate environment what worked in the past is just no longer effective and no longer benefits our children’s employment perspectives. I have a child graduating from high school this year and he is completely unprepared to function in world focused on technology. He can analyze poetry, write essays, complete complex equations, give you the highlights of American history but can’t tell a byte from a bite. But wait…he does have a personal network of well over three hundred friends and classmates that he daily communicates with, share pictures, etc… but this wasn’t taught to him in school. He had to pick this up on his own. What a tragedy that schools are not realizing that the students they are squeezing into 1950’s classrooms are quite capable of learning much more and are quite a bit brighter than they are given credit. Teachers must be willing to examine what their goals are for their students and evaluate if their methods are worthwhile. I am not advocating changing the subject matter being taught, but rather the approach to teaching it. No more teacher-driven learning but a switch to student-driven or student team-driven learning.

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