Faced with the challenge of preparing today’s students for success in an increasingly global economy, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, April 21, announced the development of a first-of-its-kind Center for 21st Century Skills.

The Center will be run from the governor’s office by the North Carolina Business Committee for Education (NCBCE). Educators and business leaders across the state will work in tandem to redesign existing curricula, improve teacher professional development efforts, and implement assessments designed to track statewide student progress. The Center will collaborate with K-12 school systems, community colleges, and teacher education institutions to develop and pilot its programs, but specific details were not available at press time.

Joining forces with the nonprofit Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that brings leaders from education and the business community together, Easley said that he hopes the effort will lead to the development and adoption of a new model for teaching and learning in schools from coast to coast.

“We must continue to reform our public school system to meet the growing demands of the new global economy,” Easley said. “The new Center for 21st Century Skills will ensure that students graduate from our educational institutions with the skills they need to compete and succeed in the workplace.”

In an interview with eSchool News, Karen Bruett, who chairs the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and is the director of education and community initiatives for Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc., said the goal is to create “a public-private partnership that will better prepare students for their future.”

The partnership’s framework for 21st century education emphasizes competencies such as information and communication technology (ICT) literacy, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, global awareness, and business, economic and civic literacy–skills today’s executives say are critical to success.

Easley’s 2005-07 budget includes an appropriation to NCBCE of $250,000 in the coming fiscal year and $500,000 the following year for the creation of the Center. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills will work with North Carolina’s Center to match the state’s commitment with private contributions. The first company to participate is Dell Inc. which has made a commitment of $50,000.

In recent months, the cry for reform has intensified from educators and business leaders who want a radical redesign of the nation’s antiquated education system–one critics argue has put American students at a disadvantage compared to tech-savvy graduates from nations such as China and India, where a single school has sometimes granted more engineering and technical degrees than every U.S. college and university combined.

The outcry reached a crescendo in late February when the nation’s governors, including Easley, met in Washington to develop a plan that would restore credibility to the high school diploma and make schools accountable for the students they graduate. State leaders were buoyed in their discussions by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who branded the nation’s high schools “obsolete” and called on policy makers to institute reforms that embrace the teaching of practical, job-related skills. (See “Gates, governors: Upgrade high school“).

As governor, Easley has made reforming the state’s high schools and better preparing students for the demands of higher education and the workplace one of his top priorities. In August 2003, Easley partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the 21st Century High Schools initiative–a program to create smaller, more intimate high schools dedicated to providing students with a relevant, hands-on education.

His supporters say the new Center represents yet another step in that direction.

“Every child needs 21st century skills for success in learning and life. This initiative will better prepare students to leave school with skills and knowledge needed for the better paying, highly skilled jobs of the new economy,” said John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association and vice chair of the partnership.

After spending the first two years of its existence building awareness around the program, defining a framework for 21st century skills, and rolling-out a series of online tools intended to further the use higher-order thinking skills in the classroom, Bruett says the partnership is gearing up to turn its vision into a reality.

“We’re focused on finding states that are looking to make an investment in 21st century skills,” she said. “The partnership has provided a very broad framework as well as several tools and resources … but we haven’t yet taken it down to practice in the individual states.”

Eventually, Bruett said, the goal is to have at least five states that serve as a national model–sharing best practices and providing guidance–as educators realign current curricula to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive, technology-driven workforce.

“Teaching the ‘three Rs’ is not enough anymore for success in the 21st century,” Bruett said. “Students need to know … how to apply that information in the global economy. When you incorporate these kinds of skills into the classroom, you make learning more relevant to students.”

Links:

Partnership for 21st Century Skills
http://www.21stcenturyskills.org/

Office of the Governor in North Carolina (Official)
http://www.governor.state.nc.us/

Gov. Mike Easley
http://www.mikeeasley.org/