The 21st Century is Just a Fad

Last week at work was one of those that pretty well swamps everything else, which means this weekend I’ve been catching up on a very full aggregator (and the ever-popular email).

The RSS stream included Jay Mathews regular Monday opinion column from the Post (which, strangely enough, is printed in the news section of the paper version) in which he once again takes on 21st century skills, calling them “the last doomed pedagogical fad”.

Granted, the 21st-century skills idea has important business and political advocates, including President-elect Barack Obama. It calls for students to learn to think and work creatively and collaboratively. There is nothing wrong with that. Young Plato and his classmates did the same thing in ancient Greece. But I see little guidance for classroom teachers in 21st-century skills materials. How are millions of students still struggling to acquire 19th-century skills in reading, writing and math supposed to learn this stuff?

The target of his rant, of course, is the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and I agree that much of their literature “should be tossed in the trash”.

However, in the process of trashing the Partnership’s materials, Mathews also misses two important points about what education should be in the 21st century.

First, he assumes (as do many others) that we must make an either-or choice between those 19th century skills and helping kids learn how to think critically, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and the rest (or we must prioritize one over the other).

Certainly students need to know how to read, write and use mathematics, but not in the same way as kids did in the 19th century, or even the 20th.

Like it or not, digital technology, simple-to-use communication tools, and ubiquitous access to information is drastically altering how the world works. Both the school curriculum and how it is presented need to be drastically altered in parallel.

And second, these “21st century skills” (I’m really growing to hate that term) are no “pedagogical fad”. They represent abilities that would be required of a successful adult at any point in history.

Maybe in this century we can actually acknowledge that and begin to build an educational system around them instead of just assuming students will pick them up on their own.

Can’t Have One Without The Other

In his regular Monday education column, Jay Mathews takes a look at one DC-area high school senior’s experience with the mix of education and social services.

And relates her story to the larger issue of improving the American education system.

We are in the midst of a national debate, its outcome uncertain, over what should be the emphasis of efforts to fix public schools. Some say the focus should be on improving teaching. Only in the classroom, they say, is there a chance to give students — particularly those in poverty — the tools they need to succeed. Others say teachers cannot reach those children until their family lives, shaken by parental joblessness or mental or physical illness, are straightened out by government action.

Why do those two approaches have to be mutually exclusive?

One of the biggest problems in the education reform debate is that way too many politicians and “experts” focus their proposals almost completely on the institution of school.

They want us to believe the classroom can be divorced from the poverty, crime, and illness that too many students face in the outside world.

In a growing number of districts (including some a short distance from here), it is hopeless trying to improve student learning without at the same time seriously addressing the societal problems the kids and their families live with.

More of the Same is Not Reform

This week Time Magazine has an interview with Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, calling him an Apostle of Reform.

Nice title. However, you won’t find much “reform” for American schools in what he has to say.

Duncan wants kids to spend more time in class, which makes very little sense without talking about what they will be doing with those extra minutes.

More of the same is not reform.

He likes charter schools and wants to give parents more choice.

Which is fine until you realize that most charters use the identical instructional model, curriculum, and materials as public schools.

More of the same is not reform.

And choice is wonderful as long as the people doing the choosing have a good understanding of their options.

If you plan to ask parents to select a school for their child, they first need understand the different educational philosophies being used by the charters.

As opposed picking the one with the slickest marking campaign.

Then we get to No Child Left Behind.

Duncan thinks the problem with this train-wreck of a law is that we need national goals instead of letting each state set their own.

That goal would be to have “common college-ready international benchmark standards”.

Roughly translated that means one standardized test that continues to focus American education on sending every child to college.

Whether or not that form of post-K12 training is the best fit with the interests and skills of the student.

In other words, more of the same.

Simple Solutions

According to the op-ed page of this morning’s Post, Bill Gates recently dropped by to let us all know how to fix American education.

… Gates names two priorities: helping successful charter school organizations, such as KIPP, replicate as quickly as possible; and improving teacher effectiveness at every other school.

First of all, despite the endorsement of Post writer Jay Mathews, KIPP is not a solution that works for all kids. Indeed, there are many facets of their program that cannot (and should not) be replicated.

As for “teacher effectiveness”, that, of course, is almost exclusively measured by standardized test scores.

Which is not a bad thing since President Obama and his secretary of education both have expressed the need for better standardized tests, right?

And just for good measure, we need to throw in the teacher improvement proposals of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of DC public schools, also focused almost entirely on individual teacher performance based on test scores.

See, fixing schools is very simple: better tests and training to better teach to those tests.

Multiple Choices

It was interesting that education was one of three primary topics in President Obama’s address to Congress last night.

Also somewhat surprising considering that in the past few of decades the subject usually received a one-sentence mention in the laundry list of other stuff crammed towards the end of the speech.words.jpg

Even more pleasant to hear was Obama expanding the concept of post-K12 education beyond the traditional four-year university degree.

It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.

The idea of high school graduation being an act of patriotism is also something new and unique.

And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country — and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

His administration’s concept of school reform (at least the parts I’ve read) still doesn’t go far enough.

However, making it possible for students to select from and plan for a variety of paths after they finish high school would be a major step in the right direction.

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