Opinion
Federal Commentary

Accountability 2.0

By Tony Wagner — June 11, 2009 3 min read

President Obama recently declared that “the solution to low test scores is not lowering standards—it’s tougher, clearer standards.” He also called for a “21st century” education for all students. Here’s the problem: When many policymakers, parents, and educators hear the call for “tougher standards,” they assume this means requiring students to know more academic content. Most do not understand that merely teaching and testing more subject knowledge will not prepare students for careers and college in this new century. We don’t just need tougher standards. We need different learning standards and new kinds of tests to ensure our students’ success today.

I have reviewed studies on the skills employers consider most important, and interviewed scores of senior executives who work in the high-tech industry, retail, service, manufacturing, and the military. I discovered near-universal agreement on the core competencies that employers need most in today’s workplace: the ability to think critically, the capacity to collaborate with others, and effective oral and written communication skills. I also heard frequent complaints from employers about the extent to which these skills are weak, or altogether absent, among new hires—young people just out of high school as well as college graduates. Why do we have such poor results after seven years of dramatically increased accountability requirements for all public schools?

In the 21st century, core competencies are as important as core knowledge.”

What I observe in classrooms all over the country is that, increasingly, there is only one curriculum in our schools: Test Prep. I believe in accountability, but the tests widely used by states to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act rely primarily on multiple-choice questions that assess students’ ability to recall facts—and little else. And what’s tested is what’s taught. As a consequence, much less class time is spent on research projects, text-based discussions, and other activities that teach effective communication and critical thinking. Many students graduate from high school today having never written a paper longer than five paragraphs—the writing format taught to pass state tests—and not knowing how to ask good questions, weigh evidence, reason, analyze, hypothesize, or work with others. Businesses spend nearly $3 billion a year teaching their employees how to write, while nearly half of the students who pass the MCAS test in Massachusetts—the state that the president held up as a model of success—still need remediation when they go on to college because they lack these skills.

Ensuring students’ mastery of core academic knowledge is an essential purpose of education. But if this knowledge is all that’s tested, increasingly school will become a high-stakes game of Trivial Pursuit, and we will fall farther behind in the race to develop an innovation economy—one based on the continuous creation of new ideas, products, and services.

In the 21st century, core competencies are as important as core knowledge. Information is changing constantly and doubling at an astounding rate. The best-run companies require every employee to be able to work with others to analyze the most current information and apply it to new problems. What is different about work in the 21st century is the demand that all employees be able to think critically, collaborate, and communicate effectively. Young people who want to get and keep a good job in the new global knowledge economy must master core competencies that only a few students have had in the past. And the country that has the greatest number of workers with these skills will create an economy that produces more innovations and so gain an enormous competitive advantage.

The choice is not between teaching and testing core knowledge vs. core competencies. Critical-thinking and communications skills are best learned through in-depth study of challenging academic content. There are a growing number of tests—assessments widely used in other countries—in which students have to show that they can apply their subject-content knowledge to new questions and problems. We urgently need to begin research and development for a next-generation accountability system that assesses the skills that matter most in the 21st century. Our children’s future—and the future of our country—are at stake.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as Accountability 2.0

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