Educators to Obama: Focus on 21C skills

As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office, his education reform plan has the potential to modernize library technologies, make school buildings more energy-efficient, and invest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and research. Yet, according to a recent survey, educators say addressing 21st-century (21C) skills should top the list of priorities in Obama’s plan, so students are prepared for the workplace of tomorrow.

The survey, conducted by the American Society for Quality (ASQ)–a professional association that offers training and tools to educators and businesses–was conducted from August through November 2008 and polled more than 700 K-12 teachers and administrators from across the United States.

"[We] saw the opportunity [to give] educators … an outlet to provide ideas on what needs to change most in American education and offer them the chance to help shape our nation’s K-12 education agenda," said ASQ in a statement.

ASQ plans to work with its Public Policy Action Committee to deliver the list of priorities to Obama and his Education Secretary designee, Arne Duncan, by the end of the month.

"While education might not be front and center [owing] to the immediate economic crisis, educators want to remind President-elect Obama that K-12 students need to be a top priority so that our nation can produce a globally competitive workforce for the future," said Maurice Ghysels, chair of ASQ’s K-12 Education Advisory Committee and superintendent of Mountain View Whisman School District in Mountain View, Calif.

The five-minute, three-question survey asked educators to rank education issues in order of their highest priority for the next president of the United States. Sample choices included "help all students meet achievement goals" and "ensure adequate and stable funding of school budgets at state and federal levels."

More than half (52 percent) of educators surveyed ranked 21C skills as the most important priority for the new administration–skills such as the ability to collaborate, innovate and create, and learn about technology.

Two issues tied for second place in the survey: retaining qualified teachers and helping all students meet achievement goals (42 percent).

What surprised ASQ was that "transforming NCLB to improve measurements" was not listed as a top priority, with only 29 percent ranking this as a top area of focus.

Two other areas that educators ranked as lower priorities were closing the achievement gap among whites and minorities (17 percent) and eliminating budget waste and inefficiency in K-12 schools (22 percent).

Another recent ASQ study, conducted by Harris Interactive, shows that other adults agree with educators that schools are not making 21st-century skills a priority.

In fact, 96 percent of adults believe that students today need to improve upon the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century. Skills listed by adults and parents as needing more development include organizational skills, communication skills, problem solving and reasoning, creativity, teamwork, and science and technology skills.

Among adults who think students today need to improve such skills, 64 percent say U.S. school systems are not making these skills enough of a priority, and 35 percent say state and local governments are not holding schools accountable to adequately train students.

"Such 21st-century skills as research, development, design, marketing, and global supply-chain management will require not only a framework of competencies in core subjects, life, career, media, and technology skills, but also strong learning and innovation skills," said Ghysels. "To prepare our students for this world, teachers must move beyond the role of facilitators and become collaborators in learning, seeking new knowledge alongside students and modeling positive habits of work and mind–moving our schools from teaching systems to learning organizations."

Ghysels said his district devotes a great deal of time to core academic subjects, while simultaneously incorporating elements of what he calls "continuous improvement" (CI), to help students engage in 21st-century skills.

Teachers at Mountain View Whisman:

– Give students more control during lesson development. For example, students provide feedback to their teacher’s lessons and run class meetings analogous to creative project management teams, in which they share ideas on how to learn better and faster. They conduct "plus-delta" exercises (identifying what’s going well and what needs to be changed), or what Pixar calls "post-mortems," to discover as a team what went right and what went wrong with a lesson, their own learning behavior, or the pace or depth of the subject matter. "In this culture of respect, they develop character and the definitions of a ‘quality student’ and ‘quality teacher’ and publicly display those agreements on their classroom walls with all of their signatures," said Ghysels.

– Create a peer culture in which goals in the classroom are known and transparent. The goals are related to district goals, as well as state standards, and students openly chart their progress in individual student data folders and graph their cumulative results in classroom data centers. These are then analyzed during class meetings in which students talk about defining the support for each of their classmates to become successful in meeting individual and class goals.
– Encourage communication by addressing difficulties in solving class problems. For example, ineffective or inefficient use of instructional time is analyzed among students, and broken agreements to ground rules are addressed to manage the class in a trustworthy and respectful manner.

"This communication and collaboration produces more student buy-in and implicit motivation to achieve academic results. The open communication also ensures that core values and strong character behaviors are transparent, positive, and productive. Students even run their own parent conferences describing their goals, their assessment data, and their accomplishments to their parent and teacher," said Ghysels.

He continued: "We are not suggesting that CI is the only solution to generating academic results and creativity; we are simply reporting that the CI classroom is a powerful way to engage students in 21st-century skills that demand creativity–but it’s not enough."

Students, too, can speak up

Thanks to the Speak Up Project, a national initiative from the educational nonprofit organization Project Tomorrow (formerly known as NetDay), students around the country can share their own thoughts on improving education with the new president and Congress.

Though the national Speak Up survey has already closed, one open-ended question will remain online for all students through January 20th (Inauguration Day): "Imagine you are the President of the United States (or the leader of your country), and your No. 1 education goal is to make sure every student is prepared for the jobs and careers of the future. What is the one thing you would do to improve schools to ensure that all students receive the education and skills they need to be successful in life?"

"We look forward to seeing the breadth of ideas our nation’s students put forward, and sharing those with this country’s elected leaders in the spring," said Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow. "We encourage students to respond on their own, teachers to lead a class discussion on the topic or assign it for homework, and parents to discuss suggestions with their children."



Project Tomorrow’s question for students

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the “ Creating the 21 st Century Classroom ”resource center. Preparing today’s youth to succeed in the digital economy requires a new kind of teaching and learning. Skills such as global literacy, computer literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation have become critical in today’s increasingly interconnected workforce and society–and technology is the catalyst for bringing these changes into the classroom. Go to Creating-the-21st-century-classroom

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