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Survey: Learning '21st-Century Skills' Linked to Work Success

A study released today by the polling firm Gallup Inc. finds that students' exposure to so-called 21st-century skills in school correlates positively with "perceived quality of work" later in life.

For the study, which was commissioned by Microsoft Partners in Learning and the Pearson Foundation, Gallup asked 1,014 individuals aged 18 to 35 how much experience they had with certain advanced learning skills during their last year of school, including college or graduate school, if applicable. (Cognitive testing conducted by Gallup prior to the survey determined that individuals at the upper end of the age range would have comparable recall of their last school year.)

The skills in question—often dubbed 21st-century skills because of their reputed connection to present-day workplace demands—included collaboration, knowledge construction, global awareness, use of technology for learning, real-world problem solving, and skilled communication. Some of them are also emphasized in the Common Core State Standards, now being implemented in schools across the country.

The analysis shows that respondents who had a comparatively high degree of exposure to such skills in their last year of school were twice as likely to strongly agree that they are successful and valued in their current jobs. The skill that computed as most closely connected to later work quality was real-world problem solving—though less than two-thirds of the respondents, and less than half of those with only high school degrees, reported being exposed to it in their last year of school.

Overall, the majority of the respondents (59 percent) said that the skills they use in their current jobs were developed outside of school entirely. That response was particularly prevalent among those with only high school degrees—a fact that the study's authors see as "a potential call for action to better prepare youth for work."

The study shows that, in general, the respondents who were high school graduates were far less likely to be exposed to 21st century skills in school than those with higher-level degrees. It also notes that, while the vast majority of all respondents reported having used technology in school, relatively few (14 percent) said they did so for purposes of collaboration, which Gallup calls a key aspect of "today's highly virtualized work environment."

Interestingly, younger participants (ages 18-22) were slightly less likely to say they used collaborative technology in school than older participants—a surprise given the growing prevalence of social media and online collaboration tools in recent years. On the whole, however, younger respondents had higher levels of 21st-century skills development than older survey participants. The study conjectures that this may be an indication that "teaching strategies are changing in the U.S."

In a separate set of questions, the study found that the respondents' level of "student aspiration" in the last year of school—characterized by support from teachers, a sense of belonging, and encouragement of student voice—correlated closely both with exposure to 21st-century skills and later work success. Support from teachers was seen to have a particularly strong association in both cases.

The study has an estimated margin of error of 3 percent. While both Microsoft Partners in Learning and the Pearson Foundation have an acknowledged interest in promoting 21s-century skills in schools, they were not involved in the survey analysis and by agreement had no influence over the reported findings, according to a Gallup representative.

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