Proponents of educational technology for years have been saying that schools need to focus more on teaching so-called “21st-century skills,” such as problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. Now, it appears that momentum is finally building on Capitol Hill to encourage just such reforms: The chairman of the House education committee says he hopes to push legislation renewing the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) through Congress this fall, and one of the key changes to the law he plans to propose is incentives for states to develop more rigorous standards that reflect the needs of 21st-century learners.
“In so many meetings I have had in my district and elsewhere, employers say that our high school graduates are not ready for the workplace. Colleges say that our high school graduates are not ready for the college classroom. This is unacceptable,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in a July 30 speech outlining his vision for reforming the nation’s education law.
“In my bill, we will ask employers and colleges to come together as stakeholders with the states to jointly develop more rigorous standards that meet the demands of both. Many states have already started this process. We seek to build on and complement the leadership of our nation’s governors and provide them incentives to continue. This requires that assessments be fully aligned with these new state standards and include multiple measures of success.
“These measures can no longer reflect just basic skills and memorization,” Miller continued. “Rather, they must reflect critical-thinking skills and the ability to apply knowledge to new and challenging contexts. These are the skills that today’s students will need to meet the complex demands of the American economy and society in a globalized world.
“Schools must no longer prepare our students to be autonomous problem solvers. The workplace they enter tomorrow will increasingly require them to work in teams, collaborating across companies, communities, and continents. These skills cannot be developed solely by simple multiple-choice exams.
“For too long, we have settled for standards and assessments that do not measure up to the high goals we have for our kids or the skills they must achieve. But let none of us for a moment believe that our students will be able to participate in this interactive and participatory culture and workplace if they cannot read, write, and understand math. Therefore, the bill will say that if states take this step and commit to the students of their state that they will prepare them for the universities and jobs of the future, then we will provide them with incentives and assistance to do so.”
Focusing more on 21st-century skills was just one of several ideas Miller has for revising NCLB. Others include more fairness and flexibility, including new ways to measure a school’s success; merit pay for teachers and administrators; and more funding to implement the law’s requirements.
Miller said NCLB has brought about several positive developments in its nearly six years of implementation–but “we didn’t get it all right when we enacted the law,” he acknowledged.
“Throughout our schools and communities, the American people have a very strong sense that the No Child Left Behind Act is not fair, that it is not flexible, and that it is not funded,” he said. “And they are not wrong. The question is, what we are going to do next?”
Miller said it’s his goal as chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to pass NCLB renewal legislation in September. He said the law, as currently written, places too much emphasis on the math and reading tests, although those are still important indicators. Other tests, and measures such as graduation rates, also should be used to judge how schools are doing, he said.
Teachers unions have called for that kind of change, but the Bush administration and some Republicans in Congress say it could weaken the law.
Miller also said the law should pay teachers extra for boosting student achievement and for working in high-need areas–an idea generally opposed by the national teachers unions.
Republicans were unavailable for comment on Miller’s proposals before press time. However, Rep. Howard P. McKeon, R-Calif., the senior Republican member of the House education committee, issued the following statement on the reauthorization of NCLB:
“No Child Left Behind is the law of the land because it balances real accountability with state and local flexibility and expanded parental choice like no education law before it. Changes to the law that weaken any of these three pillars of NCLB–accountability, flexibility, and parental choice–will be met with strong opposition from House Republicans and are likely to be a fatal blow to the reauthorization process.”
Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy, who chairs the Senate education committee, said he hopes the bill gets through his committee in September.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.
Rep. Howard P. McKeon, R-Calif.
House Committee on Education and the Workforce