Teaching

New Skills Seen Essential For Global Competition

By Dakarai I. Aarons — September 10, 2008 3 min read
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“Our understanding that everyone needs to critically think and problem-solve has been heightened when you look at what success for the United States will require in the global economy,” he said.

In fact, the report argues, the United States’ ability to create an education system that produces these better-prepared students is the “central economic competitiveness issue” facing the nation.

The report, “21st Century Skills, Education & Competitiveness,” is designed to give policymakers a tool to help them work toward creating education, workforce development, and economic-development systems that are aligned toward this goal, said Ken Kay, the partnership’s president.

“We think that education as a tool of United States competitiveness is one of the most important issues of the coming decade. This is an important time for policymakers to be addressing this,” Mr. Kay said. “In focusing on what outcomes young people need in the 21st century, you can align so much of your work as government and leaders around those outcomes.”

The partnership, based in Tuscon, Ariz., is using the report to launch its vision with a set of key policy recommendations at the federal, state, and local level. The group is planning to issue a paper in mid-November with more specific policy recommendations for the next president, Mr. Kay said.

States are encouraged to integrate global skills into the curriculum and graduation requirements for students and to work with businesses to create an agenda focused on 21st century skills.

At the local level, such skills should be incorporated into the professional development of teachers, the report says, and a top school administrator should be charged with focusing on integrating the skills into the school district. Local governments should also bring together educators and business leaders to make sure the skills students learn in school are aligned with the region’s economic-development needs.

With a new presidential administration just months away, the report has several recommendations for federal policy, including the establishment of a top adviser to the president on 21st century skills and workforce development.

It also calls for creating offices of 21st Century Skills at the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor. These would be charged with guiding the alignment of state and regional workforce development and curriculum changes to tie in with the key skills needed.

It also recommends creating a $2 billion research-and-development fund for education. A quarter of the money would be used to start a National Institute for 21st Century Skills that would create the assessment, curriculum, and instruction guidelines needed to ensure students possess such skills.

Shifting Needs

The report paints a picture of an education system in the midst of great change.

Schools set up to prepare students for a post-World War II, industrial era must change now to one that supports the information-services economy, the report argues. From 1967 to 1997, the proportion of the U.S. gross domestic product based on information services grew to 56 percent from 36 percent, according to a University of California, Los Angeles study cited in the report.

To meet the growing demand for workers who understand the information-based economy, it says, the nation’s education system must change from one that is focused on basic proficiency to one that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship and promotes the use of critical thinking skills.

But American public education has traditionally thought of critical-thinking skills as the purview of those in talented and gifted programs, while the teaching of basic skills was geared toward those on a trade track in high schools, Mr. Kay said. Now, the focus must be on making sure all students have a broad array of skills in addition to strong grounding in core subjects, he said.

Promoting global awareness is a good idea, said Vivek Wadwha, a Wertheim Fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., who praised the partnership’s report.

“We need to teach our kids geography more urgently than we need to teach math and science right now,” he said. “They don’t understand the world.”

With a “globally illiterate” population, the United States will not produce the workers it needs to compete worldwide, he said. “The rest of the world is catching up with us,” Mr. Wadwha said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2008 edition of Education Week as Global Economy Demands New Skills, Report Says

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