The nature of education, work, life, and civic engagement is changing in our increasingly competitive and globally interconnected world. Unfortunately, most high schools in the United States have not kept pace with these changes. Studies such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science and the Programme for International Student Assessment demonstrate the United States does not fare as well as some other developed countries in preparing students with skills critical to success in this century.

Creating high schools that truly will improve learning demands a clear understanding of the knowledge, skills, and attributes that are increasingly important for every high school graduate. Today’s graduates need to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and effective communicators who are proficient in both core subjects and new, 21st-century content and skills. Every school in America must prepare its graduates to thrive in the 21st century, whether they go on to college, career preparation, or the workplace.

This is an ambitious goal. Yet America must focus on achieving the results that matter–21st-century skills integrated with core academic subjects–to meet the significant educational and economic challenges we face in this century. The good news is that a growing movement is infusing 21st-century skills into education. The Partnership for 21st-Century Skills, a leading nonprofit advocacy organization consisting of 26 organizations and corporations, has developed a unified framework for 21st-century learning to strengthen America’s schools.

Besides the standard core subjects such as English, math, science, history, government, economics, art, and foreign languages, this framework also includes:

  • Content that is relevant to the 21st century: global awareness; financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial literacy; civic literacy; and health and wellness awareness.
  • Learning and thinking skills: critical-thinking and problem-solving skills; communication skills; creativity and innovation skills; collaboration skills; contextual learning skills; and information and media literacy skills.
  • Information and communications technology literacy: Students must be able to use technology to learn content and skills so they know how to think critically, solve problems, use information, communicate, innovate, and collaborate.
  • Life skills: leadership, ethics, accountability, adaptability, personal productivity, personal responsibility, people skills, self-direction, and social responsibility.
  • 21st-century assessments: Authentic ways to assess each student’s progress in these key areas are the essential foundation of a 21st-century education. This vision, and how it can dramatically transform American high schools, is outlined in a new report, “Results That Matter: 21st-Century Learning and High School Reform.” To see the full report, visit www.21stcenturyskills.org. “Results That Matters” presents three fundamental ideas about high schools:

  • The results that matter for high school graduates in the 21st century are different from and go beyond traditional metrics.
  • The nation must redefine “rigor” to encompass not just mastery of core academic subjects, but also mastery of 21st-century skills and content.
  • The results that matter–21st-century skills integrated with core academic subjects–should be the “design specifications” for creating high schools that prepare students for success in the 21st century.

    The Partnership’s members enthusiastically endorse this report and are committed to working with state and local leaders as they seek educational solutions relevant to their students, schools, and communities in the 21st century. We are pleased to share examples of how two states are implementing this vision.

    In April 2005, North Carolina became our first state partner when Gov. Mike Easley created the nation’s first Center for 21st-Century Skills. Today, the Center is working with business leaders, educators, and policy makers statewide to ensure that high school students graduate with this new 21st-century skill set. Gov. Easley’s effort is focused on infusing the state’s curriculum, standards, assessment, and professional development with 21st-century skills.

    West Virginia became our second state partner when Gov. Joe Manchin launched the West Virginia 21st-Century Skills Initiative in November. Under the leadership of State Superintendent Steve Paine, the West Virginia Department of Education is addressing the need for 21st-century skills by infusing them into the state’s standards, curriculum, and assessments as well as targeting funding for coaching and professional development to foster the change.

    We encourage other states to join North Carolina and West Virginia in the critical mission of infusing 21st-century skills into every K-12 system. Local school leaders can also become involved:

  • Access the Partnership’s free, online resources (www.21stcenturyskills.org).
  • Use the Partnership’s framework to enhance relationships with local business leaders. Ask them if these are the skills that they require and, if so, find ways to collaborate to ensure all students graduate with these skills.
  • Request that state policy makers and school leaders incorporate 21st-century skills into state and local standards and assessments.
  • Ensure your schools have the tools and environment that nurture 21st-century learning.
  • Recognize and celebrate current examples of 21st-century teaching and learning in your area.
  • Encourage all teachers and administrators to incorporate similar 21st-century strategies.

    We know 21st-century skills can be successfully infused into every classroom as we work with key state and local leaders to build consensus on what will best improve students’ success in work and life. We must leverage the learnings and framework of the Partnership and the member companies and organizations to work hand in hand in ensuring that every child in America is successful in the 21st century. We should expect no less.

    John Wilson is executive director of the National Education Association, Karen Cator is director of education leadership and advocacy for Apple Computer, and Helen Soulé is executive director of Cable in the Classroom.