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School & District Management Opinion

Redefining ‘Rigor’ for a New Century

By Ken Kay & G. Thomas Houlihan — May 16, 2006 7 min read
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One of the hottest topics in education is high school reform. Public- and private-sector initiatives to redesign high schools, strengthen the curriculum, and improve results for students abound. Yet, unless high school reformers take on a more ambitious and meaningful agenda, they risk missing their mark.

—Brian Jensen

BRIC ARCHIVE

The reason is straightforward: Creating high schools that truly will improve learning, achievement, and competencies demands a clear understanding of the knowledge, skills, and attributes that are increasingly important for every high school student today.

There has been little or no consideration given to all the results that matter for students to thrive in the global economy. Most high school reform initiatives focus on traditional metrics, such as keeping more students in school, enrolling them in more-challenging classes, and, as a result, raising high school graduation and college matriculation and retention rates. These are important goals, but they are no longer sufficient indicators of student preparedness.

Three fundamental ideas about high schools are not yet widely perceived—yet they could make or break the high school reform agenda:

There are results that matter for high school graduates in the 21st century—and these results are different from and go beyond traditional metrics. Even if all students in the country satisfied traditional metrics, they still would remain woefully underprepared for success beyond high school.

Improving high schools requires the nation to redefine “rigor” to encompass not just mastery of core academic subjects, but also mastery of 21st-century skills and content. Rigor must reflect all the results that matter for high school graduates today. Today’s graduates need to be critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and effective communicators who are proficient in both core subjects and new, 21st-century content and skills. These skills include learning and thinking skills, information- and communications-technology-literacy skills, and life skills. Such skills are in demand for all students—and they will have an enormous impact on their future prospects.

The results that matter—21st-century skills integrated with core academic subjects—should be the “design outcomes” for creating high schools that prepare students for success. Only by setting clear goals that incorporate the skills needed for this new century can high schools truly prepare students to succeed in postsecondary education, the workplace, and community life.

Nothing supports these points more forcefully than the results of national assessments and international comparisons of academic performance. U.S. students fare poorly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and the Program for International Student Assessment—a clear indication that our nation’s young people may struggle to thrive in an increasingly interdependent and competitive global economy. In particular, U.S. students fall short when asked to apply content knowledge to critical-thinking and problem-solving tasks, exposing their lack of proficiency in 21st-century skills.

The groups we represent—the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Council of Chief State School Officers—are among a number of leading organizations that have come together to support a meaningful, ambitious high school reform agenda. We believe that high schools will succeed in preparing every student for today’s global challenges only if they align their improvement efforts with all the results that matter—mastery of core subjects and 21st-century skills.

The partnership has identified six key elements of a 21st-century high school education:

Core subjects. The federal No Child Left Behind Act identifies the core subjects as English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics, government, economics, arts, history, and geography.

21st-century content. Content areas critical to success in communities and workplaces include global awareness; financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial literacy; civic literacy; and health and wellness awareness.

Learning and thinking skills. As much as students need to learn academic content, they also need to know how to keep learning—and make effective and innovative use of what they know—throughout their lives. These learning and thinking skills include critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, communication skills, creativity and innovation skills, collaboration skills, contextual-learning skills, and information- and media-literacy skills.

ICT literacy. Information- and communications-technology literacy is the ability to use technology to develop 21st-century content knowledge and skills, in the context of learning core subjects. Students must be able to use technology to learn content and skills—so that they know how to learn, think critically, solve problems, use information, communicate, innovate, and collaborate.

Life skills. Good teachers have always incorporated life skills into their pedagogy. The challenge today is to incorporate these essential skills into schools deliberately, strategically, and broadly. Life skills include leadership, ethics, accountability, adaptability, personal productivity, personal responsibility, people skills, self-direction, and social responsibility.

21st-century assessments. Authentic 21st-century assessments are the foundation of a 21st- century education. Assessments must measure all five results that matter: core subjects, 21st-century content, learning and thinking skills, ICT literacy, and life skills. Standardized tests alone can measure only a few of the important skills and knowledge students should learn. A balance of assessments, including high-quality standardized testing along with effective classroom assessments, offers students a powerful way to master the content and skills central to success.

In support of this agenda, the Council of Chief State School Officers has redefined its strategic plan to place these teaching and learning goals at the core of its organizational endeavors. As the CCSSO examines its current scope of work on high school reform with the U.S. Department of Education and key foundation partners like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it is determined to make the attainment of 21st-century skills a priority in these efforts.

Likewise, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, in its role as a national catalyst, will continue to drive this agenda, as outlined by its members, the national business community. Last fall, it sponsored the Third Annual Summit on 21st Century Skills, co-hosted by the CCSSO, the Consortium for School Networking, the Education Commission of the States, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National School Boards Association, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The summit resulted in the following principles for connecting high school reform and 21st-century skills:

• Advocates of high school redesign and 21st-century learning should work together to support each other’s efforts.

• High schools should prepare all students with 21st-century knowledge and skills.

• High school students should demonstrate achievement of 21st-century knowledge and skills.

• High school designs should fully and strategically integrate 21st-century knowledge, skills, and assessments.

• Professional development of 21st-century skills is critical for success.

• Advocates of high school redesign and 21st-century learning should partner with the business community and community-based organizations.

These principles, endorsed by 20 organizations, are included in a national report released by the partnership in March, “Results That Matter: 21st Century Skills and High School Reform.” It outlines a compelling framework for 21st-century learning. We hope it will be used to spark a dialogue among local community leaders as they work to find relevant educational solutions for their own students, schools, and communities.

Two states already have formally recognized the importance of connecting high school reform initiatives with 21st-century skills. North Carolina created the nation’s first Center for 21st Century Skills, which is working with significant high school initiatives in the state to infuse these skills into the curriculum. And West Virginia is revising content standards, assessments, and professional development to incorporate 21st-century skills.

Local school districts and individual schools are spearheading their own initiatives to integrate 21st-century skills into high schools. The Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township, Ind., is incorporating professional development and instruction in inquiry-based learning, higher-order thinking, and self-directed learning into its programs. The results have included dramatically improved student performance. New Technology High School in Napa, Calif., is using digital, Web-based tools to assess students on such skills and attributes as academic-content mastery; critical-thinking, presentation, communication, and collaboration skills; and work ethic and effort.

The ultimate goals of advocates of high school reform and 21st-century skills are the same: to prepare students to succeed and prosper in life, in school, and on the job, and to keep America competitive internationally. It’s time for all of us to start leveraging our ideas and resources to work together on all the results that matter for students to thrive in the global economy.

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