School & District Management

Motives of 21st-Century-Skills Group Questioned

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 04, 2009 12 min read
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Depending on whom you ask, “21st-century skills” can mean different things: technology literacy, the ability to analyze and apply knowledge, a knack for working effectively with colleagues in teams.

In what is probably its most visible form for educators, though, the term refers to the work of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the Tucson, Ariz.-based public-private initiative that has put the provision of all those skills at the center of its agenda.

Known as P21, the group claims 14 member states as working to foster the adoption of new academic-content standards, professional training, and assessments aligned with those skills. It has influential allies, too, including the 3.2 million-member National Education Association. Former Apple Inc., executive Karen Cator, now the head of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational technology, served a term as chair of the group’s strategic council.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21)

E-Luminate Group
Private consulting firm contracted to run daily operation. Six employees work directly on P21 issues, in addition to the firm’s co-founder and CEO, Ken Kay.

State Partners
New Jersey
North Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

Strategic Council (voting policy body)
(Founding members are in bold.)
Adobe Systems Inc., American Association of School Librarians, Apple Inc., ASCD, Blackboard Inc., Cable in the Classroom, Cisco Systems, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Dell Inc., Education Networks of America, Educational Testing Service, EF Education, Ford Motor Co., Gale Cengage Learning, Hewlett Packard, Intel Corp., JA Worldwide, K12 Inc., KnowledgeWorks Foundation, Learning Point Associates, LEGO Group, Lenovo, McGraw-Hill Cos., Measured Progress, Microsoft Corp., National Education Association, Nellie Mae Education Foundation, netTrekker, Oracle Education Foundation, Pearson, PMI, Quarasan!, Scholastic Education, Sesame Workshop, Sun Microsystems, Verizon, Walt Disney Co., West Virginia*
* On behalf of state partners

Professional Development Affiliates*
Learning Point
* List includes only those affiliates on the strategic council.

SOURCE: Partnership for 21st Century Skills

But after seven relatively quiet years of work, P21 is facing a vocal chorus of detractors of its initiative, primarily from among advocates for a liberal arts and sciences curriculum. (“Backers of ‘21st-Century Skills’ Take Flak,” March 4, 2009.)

Recently, those critics have leveled a more serious charge at the organization. P21, they allege, is a veiled attempt by technology companies—which make up the bulk of the group’s membership—to gain more influence over the classroom.

“The closer we look, the more P21’s unproven educational program appears to be just another mechanism for selling more stuff to schools,” Lynne Munson, the president and executive director of Common Core, a Washington group that advocates a stronger core curriculum, wrote in a recent blog item.

For Ken Kay, the president of P21, such criticism amounts to a “cheap shot” by those who don’t believe that the education system should be more responsive to business needs. “If you look at what we’re doing and our advocacy in the states, this has not been about trying to sell products,” he said in an interview. “All we’re trying to do is lay down a thoughtful set of design specs [for education].”

All such finger-pointing aside, the debate gets at an important subtext that appears increasingly likely to emerge as political and business leaders exhort the education system to help advance the nation’s competitiveness in the global economy. Although business-education partnerships are by no means new, P21 stands apart for the number of its partners, their influence in the technology world, and the sheer size and scope of the work it is trying to perform.

And for that reason, it is worth asking: What is P21? And how does the group plan to respond to criticism as states adopt its prescription for student learning?

Ironically, the P21 group has roots—albeit 20th-century ones—in what Mr. Kay said was an attempt to move beyond the mere provision of technology to schools. In 1996, soon after President Bill Clinton announced plans to connect all schools to the Internet, Mr. Kay—then the executive director of Computer Systems Policy Project, an advocacy group for information-technology policy—the NEA, and several technology companies began the CEO Forum.

“The [Clinton] challenge was articulated in terms of connectivity, so we felt like there wasn’t an adequate focus on the importance of professional development, software, and curriculum,” he said of the enterprise.

The forum presaged the P21 structure, with member organizations paying dues and serving on a strategic-planning body. Over a four-year period, the forum released a series of reports, beginning with a survey on the use of technology in schools.

By the time it issued its final report, the group was regularly using the phrase “21st-century skills” and calling for assessments, teacher training, and standards to better reflect those skills. Those areas are now at the core of the P21 initiative. When the forum drew to a close, in 2001, its two education partners—the National School Boards Association and the NEA—and other groups approached Mr. Kay about continuing the work, according to Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the NSBA.

The nonprofit P21 group, begun in 2002 with backing from the U.S. Department of Education, operates under a virtually identical structure, although the ante to join as a partner is higher—$35,000 annually, compared with $10,000 for the earlier venture.

Mr. Kay serves as an important coordinator among the various members, thanks to his contacts in both the technology field and on Capitol Hill. According to P21’s publicly available 990, a federal form required of 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations, the group used to share an address with Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, a Washington-based technology lobbying firm.

In exchange for dues, the member organizations receive several benefits, Mr. Kay explained. They become part of “a proactive process for creating a new vision of education.” They have new networking opportunities and better access to federal policymakers and state leaders. Finally, they can access “early intelligence” about where the education system may be headed in order to help ensure that products and services align with that vision.

Core Content Plus...

Public-private partnership supports state work to overhaul standards, assessment, and professional development to bolster:

• Information and media literacy, communication
• Critical thinking, problem identification, formulation, and solution
• Creativity and intellectual curiosity
• Interpersonal and self-direction skills
• Global awareness
• Financial, economic, and business literacy
• Civic literacy

SOURCE: Partnership for 21st Century Skills

It is this final element that has raised the eyebrows of critics like Ms. Munson of Common Core. But Mr. Kay says such criticism of P21 does not take into account the group’s belief that technology alone will not solve education’s problems.

“We do believe that ... there will be uses of technology to make the new system of education happen. But our fundamental message is much broader,” he said.

Defenders include the NEA, whose executive director, John I. Wilson, sees advantages to the cooperation between technology companies and education that has grown in the wake of the partnership.

“If I can impact the products that business produces that would be relevant and useful to my members, I would certainly rather do that at the front end,” he said.

While it is not clear whether involvement in P21 has affected its for-profit members’ revenues, it is certain that the push for 21st-century skills has given way to a burgeoning market for consultants offering related services.

In 2007, for instance, P21 paid two private consultants more than $70,000 each to help spread the group’s vision, according to the federal Form 990.

It now runs a “professional-development affiliates” program that trains both for-profit and nonprofit providers on the P21 vision, after which they can offer services on their own, with P21’s endorsement.

For its part, the group spent in excess of $1 million of its revenue in 2007 to promote 21st-century skills. About half of that went to E-Luminate, a marketing and communications-consulting firm of which Mr. Kay is the co-founder and chief executive officer. The firm has a contract with P21 to handle day-to-day operations of the organization.

Whether P21 can successfully convince skeptics of its good intentions remains an open question. Concerns about a lack of specificity in its materials are no longer the sole province of core-content advocates like Ms. Munson, but also now include educators in the career and technical education arena.

“I think what we’re hearing from schools and parents is they need help translating [the skills] to something more specific,” said Kimberly A. Green, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, based in Silver Spring, Md. “You can define ‘teamwork’ in the emergency room a little better” than trying to do so in the absence of a specific reference point, she said.

The education historian Diane Ravitch, a critic of the P21 group and a trustee of Common Core, thinks that P21 could still play a powerful role in improving education, but that it must be willing to engage in greater depth on issues of curriculum and pedagogy. She scorns, for instance, its recently released “skill map” for 12th grade English that suggests having students reduce dialogue from Shakespeare to a series of text messages.

“I think they would have to get some educational consultants to connect the typology to a real curriculum,” said Ms. Ravitch, who co-authors a blog for Education Week’s Web site and was a technical adviser to the newspaper’s forthcoming Quality Counts report on academic standards.

But that advice for the partnership stands in direct contrast to what Mr. Kay sees as P21’s role. In his view, P21 must serve as a catalyst for states and districts to think about how they can be more deliberate in fostering the skills. It is still up to local educators to put into practice the changes, he says. And none of its publications’ examples is meant to serve as a standard, which they have occasionally been interpreted to be.

“We are articulating two years of research on what business leaders and civic leaders told us they are looking for,” Mr. Kay said. “I don’t think it’s beholden on us to say there’s a definitive way to teach it. ... Nobody, if they thought about it, would want the partnership to develop curriculum, standards, and assessments.”

Such work would surely be difficult, not only because of the disagreements that lurk below the surface in each of those areas, but also because the group’s own member organizations likely have different ideas about the specifics, according to observers.

“Cisco and Oracle have always had full packages of [hands-on] problems and curriculum and professional development, and have been working with schools for a long time,” said Ms. Green of the career and technical education directors’ group. “We always hear from those companies that they can give people the experience in the technical area, but it’s the other stuff they can’t influence.”

P21 has tried to shape policy nationally, though again not without controversy. On its Web site, the group promotes federal legislation to give states grants out of a “21st-century-skills fund” and to offer tax incentives to corporations that aid in those efforts. But an earlier version of the proposed legislation, from 2007, would have required states to become members of P21 in order to be eligible.

That language was dropped before the bill was reintroduced in 2009. “Our goal with the updated legislation is to streamline the process, so more states can participate and work directly with the U.S. Department of Education,” said a spokeswoman for Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., the bill’s lead sponsor.

Not all organizations on the P21 strategic council feel they have been well served. At least two representatives to the council have approached the Common Core group with reservations about whether to continue their association with P21, according to Ms. Ravitch. Neither of those individuals returned repeated phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.

Google Inc., the Mountain View, Calif.-based technology giant that pioneered the eponymous Web search tool, is a notable holdout. It generally supports P21’s goals, but is weighing whether to join, said Cristin Frodella, the company’s senior product-marketing manager for education.

In the absence of a P21-endorsed pedagogical approach, states and organizations have begun serious work to flesh out the general themes outlined by P21. The NSBA has its own trove of resources on its Web site, for instance.

Several states, including West Virginia, have created statewide training on how to link core-content standards to project-based-learning opportunities. (“‘21st-Century Skills’ Focus Shifts W.Va. Teachers’ Role ,” Jan. 7, 2009.) There are signals from that state, though, that it has started to distinguish its work from the P21 vision.

West Virginia recently renamed its own initiative “Global 21,” although state schools Superintendent Steven L. Paine sits as a voting member of the P21 strategic council. “We did get some feedback that the words ‘21st-century learning’ did not resonate, and we felt it was important to tailor the plan for our students and our teachers,” said Liza Cordeiro, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

In the meantime, districts in other states at the forefront of the movement have had mixed experiences in attempting to translate the P21 typology.

Lisa Barbee, a 5th grade teacher in Cleveland County, N.C., is a recent convert to the power of educational technology, thanks to a master’s-degree program she’s pursuing at Appalachian State University. Her students have manipulated virtual solids on a computer for a lesson about geometry, blogged their findings, and relied on their classmates’ narratives for assistance.

But Ms. Barbee said the training teachers in her district have received to make use of new computers and interactive whiteboards hasn’t always kept pace. “I think their heart is in the right place,” she said about district officials, “but I just don’t think it works if they razzle-dazzle you for two hours at a workshop and say, ‘Here are your 30 new computers in your school, have at it.’ ”

Still, for all the recent discussion about P21, the group has tapped into powerful concerns about the nation’s ability to produce highly skilled graduates. Though those concerns aren’t new, the message has hit home with policymakers, said Susan L. Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based group of top business leaders.

As evidence that the P21 group has been influential, she points to the focus on international benchmarking and on critical-thinking skills in drafts of the common college- and career-readiness standards that are now being crafted by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

Mr. Kay said that the group’s challenge, moving forward, is to be more “intentional and purposeful” about the outcomes of a 21st-century education system. The group is now involved in a new project that seeks to define specifically what 21st-century skills look like in classrooms. Formed with backing from Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Intel Corp., the project consists of researchers and assessment experts who will work to devise assessment prototypes that measure 21st-century skills.

“The logic behind this was that if you want the education system and instruction to pay serious attention to these skills, you are going to have to define them clearly and figure out how to assess them,” said Barry McGaw, the executive director of the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills project and a professor at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, in Australia.

Mr. McGaw noted that the international project will require the researchers to consider the extent to which such skills are discipline-based, or whether certain ones are more generally applicable among domains. That has been an area of considerable debate.

In the meantime, P21 itself remains popular among educators, in no small part because of the influence of the NEA and the NSBA. “We’ve opened a lot of doors for [Mr. Kay] and given him a venue with a lot of school board members,” said Ms. Bryant of the NSBA. “He’s never disappointed us yet.”

Coverage of efforts to promote new routes to college and career success is supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2009 edition of Education Week as Skills of Business


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