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Common Core Critiques '21st Century Skills' (and the Partnership Responds)

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The organization Common Core, which calls for giving students strong grounding across academic disciplines, has organized an open letter critiquing the program put forward by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and calling for the group to revise its goals.

That letter is signed by some big names in education policy, including Randi Weingarten, of the American Federation of Teachers; education historian Diane Ravitch; Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch Jr.; Chester Finn, of the Fordham Foundation; and John Silber, the retired president of Boston University. Some of those people have been on record previously as opposing the 21st-century-skills push.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, as we've discussed in the pages of EdWeek, promotes the cultivation of a broad range of critical-thinking, creative, and analytical skills among students, including technological know-how, as well as "soft skills," in areas such as communication. Those skills are vital to succeeding on the job and in life, the organization argues, and schools should nurture them. Supporters of that approach say they are not overlooking the importance of hard-and-fast academic content, but critics of the skills movement have not been assuaged.

In its open letter, titled "A Challenge to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills," the letter-writers say the approach of the Partnership, or P21, "marginalizes knowledge and therefore will deny students the liberal education they need." They add that "skills can neither be taught nor applied effectively without prior knowledge of a wide array of subjects."

The letter accuses P21 of attempting to "teach skills apart from knowledge," and calls for the program to be "fundamentally revised." As it now stands, it is "undermining the quality of education in America."

While the AFT's Weingarten's name is on the letter, her objections are definitely not shared by the 3.2 million-member National Education Association. The NEA is a founding member of P21, the union's executive director, John Wilson, noted in an e-mail, when I asked him for comment. Wilson took a dim view of the letter, which he said mischaracterizes P21's agenda.

"This group continues to amaze me," he said of the letter-writers, "that they would pit core knowledge against 21st-century skills, when our students need both. ... I have witnessed first- hand teachers using 21st-century skills and new technology to enhance the teaching of core subjects. To relegate today’s students to rows of desks, a teacher at the front of the classroom espousing content, and a textbook with paper and pencil is to guarantee that our students will be left with the lowest skills and the lowest-paying jobs."

Ken Kay, the president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, had this response in an e-mail: "We have never advocated, in any context, the teaching of 21st century skills separate from content. It is clear that you can’t just teach students to think, you have to teach them to critically think, problem solve and innovate about something – knowledge is the base of learning."

Added Kay: "Why don’t we all agree on an agenda of improving curriculum, assessment and professional development to ensure students acquire deep content knowledge and at the same time develop the skills vital to success in today’s world?"

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"To relegate today’s students to rows of desks, a teacher at the front of the classroom espousing content, and a textbook with paper and pencil is to guarantee that our students will be left with the lowest skills and the lowest-paying jobs."

Which leaves open the question of why Asian students subjected to the "desks-in-a-row, teacher-in-front, content-based curricula" are getting most of the engineering jobs in the U.S. Oh, right. It must be the culture. I keep forgetting.

"... promotes the cultivation of a broad range of critical-thinking, creative, and analytical skills among students, including technological know-how, as well as "soft skills," in areas such as communication."

"promotes the cultivation"

Absolutly no quantification. Motherhood and apple pie. In reality, it's low expectations.


"... schools should nurture them."

"nurture"

Not ensure. If kids don't get to point 'B', it's there own fault. Oh yes, there is no point 'B'. It's all about process. "Trust the spiral." High SES parents don't trust the spiral. And educators wonder where the academic gap comes from.


"To relegate today’s students to rows of desks, a teacher at the front of the classroom espousing content, and a textbook with paper and pencil is to guarantee that our students will be left with the lowest skills and the lowest-paying jobs."

This is completely unsubstantiated and self-serving. 21st century skills (whatever they are, exactly), are not defined by child-centered group learning. This is off-topic and a completely ludicrous argument.


"Why don’t we all agree on an agenda of improving curriculum, assessment and professional development to ensure students acquire deep content knowledge and at the same time develop the skills vital to success in today’s world?"

OK. What's the process? Oh, that right. There is no process. There are no details. It's easy to argue with vague generalities. You have plausible denial and wiggle room.

It would be one thing if everyone talked about only the details of exactly what 21st century skills are, but it seems that it's just one more vehicle for pushing and justifying a child-centered, top-down, low content and mastery view of education.

Here's a thought: Instead of having a winner-take-all "Shootout at the OK Curriculum" to decide what every child in the nation will be taught, we let teachers teach whatever and however they want, and let families choose and pay for whichever schools they think are best for their kids (with financial aid for those who need it).

A quarter century of econometric research has resoundingly shown that educational freedom works: http://www.cato.org/pubs/articles/coulson_comparing_public_private_market_schools_jsc.pdf

So a rich, well-rounded core curriculum means kids in rows, and a teacher in the front of the room droning on from a textbook?

That'll come as a surprise to the NEA members who deliver such a curriculum in classrooms every day and whose classrooms don't resemble the Dickensian portrait Mr. Wilson paints.

"Angry teacher on Line One, Mr. Wilson. And line two. And all the other ones! Mr. Wilson??"

It is not about the knowledge or the thinking but how we relate the two. Over dependence on either facts or thinking reduces the potency of both. We will still need to learn basic facts and processes because we need them as tools and guides to thinking. For example, we learn to read so that we can read to learn. We want kids to know their math facts, but not as an end. We want them to be able to apply them to solving problems. And yes, facts are becoming increasingly easy to look up - provided we know how and where to look. However, content and skills are not an end, but rather a means. They are tools and vehicles for students to apply if they are to meet and successfully address the multiple challenges of the 21st century. As Francis Bacon said, knowledge is power, but real power lies in applying knowledge.

"We want kids to know their math facts, but not as an end."

Nobody believes it's an end.


"However, content and skills are not an end, but rather a means."

Exactly. The means to an end. You start with content and skills and then build meaning. Unfortunately, many educators get this backwards and the skills and knowledge never get done. "Promote" and "nurture" will never ensure mastery. It shows a lack of commitment. It shows that they don't think it's important.

Math skills with little understanding can be fixed. Understanding with few math skills is not possible. For many kids in math, this happens by 7th grade. It's all over. It won't be fixed.

Here is a way to begin to measure some of those 21 century skills (or 19th century, or 3rd century BCE, or whatever you want to call them).

PISA problem solving study...
http://www.oecd.org/document/54/0,3343,en_32252351_32236173_34002550_1_1_1_1,00.html

USA fifteen year olds score even worse on the problem solving study, relative to other nations, than we do in math, science, or literacy. 57% of them score as Level 1 problem solvers or below.

Does this relate to all the business white papers being published complaining about the quality of our recent grads? I would bet so.

Partents are always thier child's first teachers. Educators have a bigger responsbility these days, but I don't feel as parents, in general, that we have stepped up to the plate to start early education and involvement with our kids. Too many parents are still leaving "education" at the front doorstep of the school house and expecting schools to do it all in 7 hours a day and 190 days a year. What about the other 6-7 waking hours a day the children have at home? Are they invovled with reading? Helping with homework? Providing enrichment opportunities for thier children? Using the technology to research and inquire? Take family field trips to further what a child might be studying in school? I am a parent and find myself guilty as well. Why? Because I am also a teacher who finds myself spending more time trying "educate" my students at school---because it MUST get done, then I do with ensuring success with my own children. I've tried to correct that and make my own children an equal priority. It's very difficult for teachers to do thier jobs when parents aren't involved with what's going on at school, in academics, in child development, and in all areas.

Both sides of the argument are correct. The real trick for teachers, effectively preparing students for the 21st Century, is to ensure that thinking is taught in conjunction with the foundational requirements of any subject. By utilizing a strategy, such as an Extent Barometer (to what extent has ......?) teachers can get their students analyzing the body of knowledge they have gained in class. A question such as; to what extent has Lincoln's address, differential calculus, Shakespeare's Macbeth, the discovery of DNA etc etc, shaped American life today, students can evaluate the importance of their classroom learning. This is a true 21st Century skll.
This is the key. Teacher products are available to guide teachers' in the use of such strategies, one such product the innovative teacher's companion is worthwhile. Teachers must become familair with the teaching of thinking, not just the foundation skills of remembering, understanding and applying but the higher order skills of analyzing, evaluating and designing.

Students' educational needs are not as black and white as most contributors here suggest. Students today need both the academic content and skills taught through a 21st century lens. Most adults miss the fact that a fundamental shift in knowledge acquisition and communication have occurred. It's a sea change that, without acknowledgment and adjustment, has the potential to alienate a whole generation of learners. Most people over 40 are completely out of touch with the way kids integrate technology in to a great number of areas in their lives. The aging teacher population just exaggerates the gap. And, when we compare US students to those overseas, just remember that most other countries have year-round school, creating a huge advantage for them.

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