How to make sure that today’s students–tomorrow’s graduates–can thrive in the new knowledge economy was a key area of focus at the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) Leadership Summit, held last week in Washington, D.C.

Speaking at the event, a U.S. Department of Education (ED) official challenged education leaders to “accelerate the rate of change” in the nation’s schools.

Educators need to “focus on competitiveness, because we’re not getting the results we require in today’s more competitive economy,” said Hudson LaForce, senior counselor to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. “Our customers, whether you define those as businesses, parents, students, or others, are telling us that we’re not doing enough.”

LaForce cited survey results showing that, when asked if high school students are being significantly challenged in school, 90 percent of business leaders and college faculty, 88 percent of high school teachers, and 75 percent of high school students responded that they were not being significantly challenged.

“If you get 75 percent of the teenagers to agree with 88 percent of the adults on anything, you probably have something you need to latch hold of,” he said. “We’re not expecting enough of our high school students.”

LaForce added: “We have a rate-of-change problem. The gap gets bigger over time, not smaller. Many, many positive things are happening in our country, but we need to make that systemic, and we need to accelerate the rate of change.”

Calling technology an obvious “accelerator of change,” LaForce continued: “There are few more pressing issues than [global] competitiveness. Education clearly plays a vital role in making sure that the United States economy maintains its place at the top as the world’s strongest and most dynamic. If we can increase the rate of change [in our schools], we’ll achieve the objectives we set out for ourselves.”

‘Tangible next steps’

State education officials, government leaders, and technology enthusiasts gathered at the four-day SETDA Leadership Summit, which featured sessions on how state leaders can collaborate with their peers from other states, an education forum that examined the skills today’s students need to be successful upon graduation, and a day dedicated to advocacy and legislative visits.

“We are focusing on the fact that, in order for America to be competitive, education has to take some very tangible next steps,” said Mary Ann Wolf, SETDA’s executive director, in an interview with eSchool News.

These steps include making sure that technology is available to all students, not just those in affluent schools, and making sure teachers and administrators have the training needed to integrate technology effectively into instruction.

The nearly 300 summit attendees had the chance to hear panel discussions on topics such as teacher quality, 21st-century skills, teaching math and science, and workforce development.

During a session titled “Skills for the 21st Century: What Skills Do Students Need to Be Competitive Today?” panelists discussed various ways to ensure that students not only receive an adequate education, but are prepared for success in an increasingly global society.

Moderator Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), called on those present to look for methods of enhancing students’ education in a way that will last well beyond their schooling.

Panelist Marcia Capuano of Indiana’s Lawrence Township Schools discussed how her district, an urban area where 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, intends to help students gain the skills necessary to compete in the 21st century.

“It’s really critical that we have equity,” she said, adding it’s important that all children “not only read, write, and compute, but have the ability to interact in a global economy.”

Capuano also said that teacher professional development is “critical if [students] are to understand, use, and embrace 21st-century skills.”

Karen Cator, director of education leadership and advocacy efforts for Apple Computer, echoed Capuano’s sentiments: “We need the wisdom of adults in schools to ensure that students are successful with 21st-century skills.”

The question in the session’s title is answered by a new report from P21, which–along with the Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Society for Human Resource Management–surveyed more than 400 human-resource officials earlier this year. The survey identifies the core skill sets that today’s employers desire–and it suggests that new entrants to the workforce are ill-prepared when it comes to these skills (see related story).

Kay also asked the panelists to address and define the difference between technology competency and 21st-century skills.

“You can’t accomplish 21st-century skills without technology,” Cator said. “Technology is the tool to get us there.”

“To me, technology is the format, but you’re not going to replace teachers or curriculum–you’re going to enhance what they have,” said Sen. Bob Plymale of the West Virginia State Senate.

A model for change

Michael Golden, deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, delivered a luncheon keynote speech that highlighted his state’s growing technology accomplishments.

The state’s political and educational leaders are working toward a systemic vision and are seeking out stakeholders such as parents, businesses, and political figures to help establish a leadership system, he said.

Golden said the state has integrated two dozen strategic plans into one shared vision and set of priorities. In late October, a central education portal will have its preliminary launch.

He added that 21st-century summits for teachers and educators will help pre-service teachers prepare for teaching in a global economy, and he emphasized the state’s desire to “celebrate teachers instead of giving them burdens,” something that will be realized through a program in which principals will nominate teachers for outstanding classroom and educational efforts.

In addition, Classrooms for the Future, a step toward large-scale high school reform, will promote an education infrastructure that Golden said he believes will be essential to students’ and teachers’ success.

“We want to give all Pennsylvania students the same technology access and the same opportunities,” he said.

Links:

State Educational Technology Directors Association
http://www.setda.org

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

Pennsylvania Department of Education
http://www.pde.state.pa.us