Common Core Critiques ‘21st Century Skills’ (and the Partnership Responds)

By Sean Cavanagh — September 16, 2009 2 min read
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The organization Common Core, which calls for giving students strong grounding across academic disciplines, has organized an open letter critiquing the program put forward by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and calling for the group to revise its goals.

That letter is signed by some big names in education policy, including Randi Weingarten, of the American Federation of Teachers; education historian Diane Ravitch; Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch Jr.; Chester Finn, of the Fordham Foundation; and John Silber, the retired president of Boston University. Some of those people have been on record previously as opposing the 21st-century-skills push.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, as we’ve discussed in the pages of EdWeek, promotes the cultivation of a broad range of critical-thinking, creative, and analytical skills among students, including technological know-how, as well as “soft skills,” in areas such as communication. Those skills are vital to succeeding on the job and in life, the organization argues, and schools should nurture them. Supporters of that approach say they are not overlooking the importance of hard-and-fast academic content, but critics of the skills movement have not been assuaged.

In its open letter, titled “A Challenge to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills,” the letter-writers say the approach of the Partnership, or P21, “marginalizes knowledge and therefore will deny students the liberal education they need.” They add that “skills can neither be taught nor applied effectively without prior knowledge of a wide array of subjects.”

The letter accuses P21 of attempting to “teach skills apart from knowledge,” and calls for the program to be “fundamentally revised.” As it now stands, it is “undermining the quality of education in America.”

While the AFT’s Weingarten’s name is on the letter, her objections are definitely not shared by the 3.2 million-member National Education Association. The NEA is a founding member of P21, the union’s executive director, John Wilson, noted in an e-mail, when I asked him for comment. Wilson took a dim view of the letter, which he said mischaracterizes P21’s agenda.

“This group continues to amaze me,” he said of the letter-writers, “that they would pit core knowledge against 21st-century skills, when our students need both. ... I have witnessed first- hand teachers using 21st-century skills and new technology to enhance the teaching of core subjects. To relegate today’s students to rows of desks, a teacher at the front of the classroom espousing content, and a textbook with paper and pencil is to guarantee that our students will be left with the lowest skills and the lowest-paying jobs.”

Ken Kay, the president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, had this response in an e-mail: “We have never advocated, in any context, the teaching of 21st century skills separate from content. It is clear that you can’t just teach students to think, you have to teach them to critically think, problem solve and innovate about something – knowledge is the base of learning.”

Added Kay: “Why don’t we all agree on an agenda of improving curriculum, assessment and professional development to ensure students acquire deep content knowledge and at the same time develop the skills vital to success in today’s world?”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.