Teaching Profession

Unions Differ On “21st Century Skills”

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 28, 2009 1 min read

In this blog item, colleague Sean Cavanagh noted that the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are on opposite ends of the “21st-century skills” debate. (NEA is one of the partnership’s founding members; AFT challenges the effort, per this letter.)

This is a curious split, and it’s even curiouser when you consider that AFT was initially on board with the notion of 21st-century skills.

In early reports from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, or P21, the main advocacy body promoting such skills, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Antonia Cortese was listed as a P21 board member. Now, she’s on the board of Common Core, the Washington-based group that is probably the strongest critic of P21.

I asked the AFT to elaborate on this a bit, and got this reply back from Cortese: “We’re not against teaching children skills or teaching them to think critically, but these things have to be taught in the context of a content-rich curriculum.”

That’s a nice statement of where the AFT now stands on 21st-century skills, but I’m not sure that it answers the political question at work here of what caused the shift in attitude.

There are, as Eduwonk intimates, implications for future policymaking. After all, as the No Child Left Behind law gets renewed, NEA will be pushing for more support for the P21 agenda. The AFT won’t be. Although the two unions’ agendas for the reauthorization align for the most part, 21st-century skills represent at least one splinter issue.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.