In yet another sign that momentum is building for the teaching of so-called "21st-century skills" in the nation’s classrooms, results of a new poll indicate that voters overwhelmingly agree: The skills students need to succeed in the workplace of today are notably different from what they needed 20 years ago.
Americans are deeply concerned that the United States is not preparing students with the skills they need to compete in the new global economy, according to the poll. Eighty-eight percent of voters say they believe schools can, and should, incorporate 21st-century skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, communication and self-direction, and computer and technology skills into the curriculum. What’s more, 66 percent of voters say they believe students need more than just the basics of reading, writing, and math; schools also need to incorporate a broader range of skills, Americans say.
The findings come as candidates for public office are ratcheting up their campaigns for the 2008 elections. Advocates of educational technology hope the poll results will mobilize candidates to talk more about the need for 21st-century instruction.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), which commissioned the survey, released its findings at a National Press Club event Oct. 10.
"Voters generally are not happy with the direction our schools are headed with respect to ensuring we have the skills to compete," said the report’s authors, Bill McInturff with Public Opinion Strategies and Geoff Garin with the Peter D. Hart Research Associates.
"Ten to 15 years ago, America was in a back-to-basics mode, meaning focusing strictly on math, science, and reading. The pendulum might have swung too far in one direction. This survey represents a change in the country’s attitudes," explained Garin.
Administered during a three-day period in September, the survey asked 800 registered voters for their opinions about how well their schools are performing. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus three-and-a-half percentage points.
According to the report, when asked how they would rate the schools in their district, 53 percent of voters rated their schools an "A" or a "B." However, when asked to rate their schools in comparison to other leading countries’ schools, such as China’s or India’s, grades dropped to "C" and "D," with only 13 percent of voters agreeing that the U.S. is doing a better job than other countries.
"That’s less than one in seven," said Garin. "That’s startling."
Although voters believe their schools are doing a good job of teaching computer literacy and technology skills, 80 percent say students need to learn different things than what they learned 20 years ago, such as focusing more on collaboration, communication, and cultural knowledge.
In fact, only 38 percent of voters say schools are doing a good job of keeping pace with changing educational needs. Three out of five believe schools are doing a "fair" or "poor" job.
McInturff said the survey reveals that voters believe students are not workforce-ready, don’t have the breadth of skills needed to succeed in today’s world, and are not well-rounded enough. "They believe students need more knowledge of problem-solving skills, [need] to learn different languages, and [need to] know the cultural history of various countries," he said.
Voters’ opinions mirror those of employers, based on a separate poll conducted last year. In that poll, sponsored by P21 along with the Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Society for Human Resource Management, business leaders reported that while the three "Rs" are still fundamental to every employee’s ability to do the job, applied skills such as teamwork, critical thinking, and communication also are essential for success.
"It’s important to note," said McInturff, "that people don’t want to replace core skills, they just want to build around them." Two-thirds of the voters polled said schools need to teach more than just reading, math, and writing, and three-quarters of voters want there to be at least equal emphasis on 21st-century skills.
Eighty percent of voters agreed that critical thinking and problem solving are important, yet only 18 percent thought schools were doing a good job of teaching these skills. Seventy-seven percent of voters think oral communication skills are important, while only 16 percent believe they are being well taught. Three-fourths of voters said ethics and social responsibility are important, while only 15 percent think these are being well taught.
"We believe that people see these skills not only in terms of what constitutes a good employee, but also what constitutes a good citizen–both roles that will help lead our country into a bright future," said Garin.
Why the shift in attitudes from 20 years ago? McInturff attributes the change in voter perspective to a "huge economic anxiety right below the surface." He believes that, with China and India making great strides in education and workforce development, Americans are worried. "By making education an issue, we can start a discussion about how to solve our anxiety," he said.
An astonishing number of poll participants, 99 percent, said they believe students’ 21st-century skills will be critical to the future success of the nation’s economy.
Despite such an apparent consensus, the road toward change in the nation’s schools might be a rocky one.
A recent report from the nonprofit group Public Agenda, titled "Important, But Not for Me: Parents and Students in Kansas and Missouri Talk About Math, Science, and Technology Education," suggests that although parents and students understand the national importance of math, science, and technology skills, they just don’t see these as important for themselves.
This could imply that although voters see the need for change on a national scale, they might not know, or even want, to incite change at the local level.
In response to P21’s voter survey, Jean Johnson, executive vice president of Public Agenda, said, "Unfortunately, the apparent consensus begins to fall apart when we probe on the specifics. That is, parents and students endorse the general aim, but when you start asking them about the details, they are much less enthusiastic."
Johnson continued: "At Public Agenda, we’ve labeled this phenomenon an ‘urgency gap.’ People may accept the challenge in a general way, but they don’t really see it when we ask them about their own schools and what their children need to study."
On the other hand, P21 notes that six states have joined the group’s initiative to help incorporate 21st-century skills into the classroom, and officials hope that, by next summer, another six will have joined.
The group also hopes to provide policy makers and educators with more tools to help incorporate 21st-century instruction into their schools.
"This is a moment in both the economy and the upcoming election where Americans are looking for hope," said Garin. By focusing on education and the teaching of 21st-century skills to the nation’s students, citizens and their elected officials can "help lead the country to a promising future."