Nice Phrases, Little Meaning

According to the headline topping the report of a new poll, the vast majority of Americans believe U.S. Students Need 21st Century Skills to Compete in a Global Economy

A new, nationwide poll of registered voters reveals that Americans are deeply concerned that the United States is not preparing young people with the skills they need to compete in the global economy.

An overwhelming 80 percent of voters say that the kind of skills students need to learn to be prepared for the jobs of the 21st century is different from what they needed 20 years ago. Yet a majority of Americans say that schools need to do a better job of keeping up with changing educational needs.

The results might be more encouraging if it wasn’t for the fact that the survey was paid for by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

And that the large companies behind the organization – Microsoft, Pearson, Blackboard, AT&T, Apple, Dell, etc. – have a huge interest in selling into the concepts being promoted by the Partnership.

Certainly, it’s hard to argue with the need for students to learn “critical thinking and problem-solving skills, computer and technology skills, and communication and self-direction skills”.

Who wouldn’t want to see a child learn all that? But exactly what does all that nice phrasing mean?

I doubt most of the respondents in the survey would agree on the terms, much less have any idea of just how radically the American educational system would have to change to help students actually learn those skills.

Unfortunately, the general public still wants to see numbers produced by NCLB-style standardized tests (and that fit easily into a 200 word report on the evening news) as “proof” that kids are learning.

However, very few of these “21st century skills” can be measured using multiple choice questions, something which this Partnership ignores with their support of the renewal of NCLB, although with some alterations.

As a side rant, can we also dump the meaningless phrase “21st century skills”? The attributes outlined by this and other organizations (with the possible exception of computer skills) would be appropriate for a successful adult of any century.