Accountability Opinion

21st-Century Skills, Accountability, and Curriculum

By Diane Ravitch — March 10, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Last week, I attended three different conferences in Washington, D.C. Not something I like to do, as I really do hope to finish my book in a few months. One was the “21st-Century skills” panel at Common Core, which we discussed. Then there was a panel discussion of accountability, in connection with the release of a report called “The Accountability Illusion” by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. And, most recently, I participated in a day-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of the National Assessment Governing Board. (Podcasts of this last event should be available at the NAGB Web site.)

I was fascinated with the many insightful responses by our readers to the topic of 21st-Century skills—or to be correct, the movement associated with an organization called P21 (the Partnership for 21st Century Skills). How can anyone be opposed to creativity, flexibility, media literacy, critical thinking, and so on? I certainly am not. Yet I have been around the track for too many years to feel comfortable with the way this is being promoted by technology companies and publishers and others with a vested interest, even a financial interest. The fact that its designated spokesman is a public relations executive doesn’t make me any more comfortable.

Many of our readers offered excellent examples of stupid activities that are being promoted to teach these “skills,” as though no one before the 21st Century ever learned to think or be creative. I continue to have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that this is just another misguided attempt to dumb down American education, as if we can stand any more of it.

I certainly agree with you that almost any subject matter can provoke serious intellectual work. Where we differ is in our views of whether the subject matter should be specified in advance. I assume—maybe I am wrong—that you oppose a set curriculum. I think that it is important to have a set curriculum, one that defines the big ideas and topics that students will encounter. Some 20 years ago, I helped to write the California History-Social Science curriculum for grades K-12, and it is still in use today. Given the enormous mobility of families, it is useful for teachers and students to know what the curriculum will be in each grade. Knowing “what” is to be taught does not tie teachers’ hands. Nor does it tell them how to teach. It just assures that there is coherence and continuity in what children study, no matter what city or community they live in.

For example, if the topic is the Brown vs. Board of Education decision (1954), teachers can come up with many different ways to convey the historical and political context of the decision, the reasons for the decision, the ideas that it embodied, as well as the reaction to it and its relevance to today. Students can read original documents, hold mock trials, conduct research on the Internet, write essays, interview people, take field trips, read biographies, on and on. The possibilities are endless for creative teaching. Every one of the so-called “21st-Century skills” could be brought to bear while learning about important events in American history.

But we agree that the “stuff,” the “content,” the “it” of David Hawkins’ triangle must be there. The skills can’t be learned in a vacuum; one can’t think critically without having something to think about and enough information to compare, contrast, and evaluate different points of view. And, as far as I am concerned, it is unacceptable to tolerate ignorance of the important events and ideas in our nation’s history. These events and ideas are important in shaping our civic and historical literacy, which all of us need.

A few words about the discussion of accountability at the Fordham Institute. The point of the report that was issued was that “proficiency” means different things in different states; that a school that is failing in one state would be considered passing in another state. This is hardly surprising, since NCLB pursues a strategy in which all 50 states and various territories are encouraged to set their own standards and their own definitions of proficiency. What perturbs me is that these days a discussion of assessment and federal legislation can go on for hours without any reference to education at all.

It seems that the crucial decisions about accountability will now be in the hands of psychometricians, economists, and actuaries—oh, and let’s not forget the ideologues, whose idea of accountability is to fire teachers and close schools.

We agree about “data informed, not data driven.” Data are in the saddle now, to the detriment of kids and their education. Data are being treated as objective facts, when they really are the numbers produced based on assumptions. If the assumptions are wrong, the data are useless. Our schools are now being evaluated and swamped by a tidal wave of useless data. We need to re-examine our assumptions.


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