Federal Opinion

Accountability 2.0

By Tony Wagner — June 11, 2009 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

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


Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
The Key to Better Learning: Indoor Air Quality
Learn about the importance of improved indoor air quality in schools, and how to pick the right solutions for educators, students, and staff.
Content provided by Delos
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Leading Systemic Redesign: Strategies from the Field
Learn how your school community can work together to redesign the school system, reengineer instruction, & co-author personalized learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal What the Federal 'Don't Say Gay' Bill Actually Says
The bill would restrict federal funds for lessons on LGBTQ identities. The outcome of this week's election could revive its prospects.
4 min read
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol on March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida House Republicans advanced a bill, dubbed by opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, to forbid discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, rejecting criticism from Democrats who said the proposal demonizes LGBTQ people.
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in Tallahassee on March 7, 2022. Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law was a model for a federal bill introduced last month.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Federal Fed's Education Research Board Is Back. Here's Why That Matters
Defunct for years, the National Board for Education Sciences has new members and new priorities.
2 min read
Image of a conference table.
Federal Opinion NAEP Needs to Be Kept at Arm’s Length From Politics
It’s in all our interests to ensure NAEP releases are buffered from political considerations and walled off from political appointees.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Federal Feds Emphasize Legal Protections for Pregnant or Recently Pregnant Students, Employees
The U.S. Department of Education has released a new resource summary related to pregnancy discrimination in schools.
2 min read
Young girl checking her pregnancy test, sitting on beige couch at home.
iStock/Getty Images Plus