In The Washington Post online, Jay Matthews discusses the growing educational movement involving teaching “21st century skills.” Calling this  “a doomed pedagogical fad,” Matthews says that he is unimpressed with the new learning techniques promoted by the program.

Clearly, the article identifies drawbacks and challenges to teaching 21st century skills in our nation’s high schools – critical thinking, creativity, teamwork and communication among them. He suggests that content difficulty, inconsistent teaching abilities and resources and “poorly motivated adolescents” are among the hurdles facing classroom teachers. (For a companion article that looks at how educators are approaching these issues in the classroom see “The Rush for 21st-Century Skills.”)

This is an important discussion – on an increasingly critical topic since it involves our ability as a nation to prepare young people for jobs in the new knowledge-based economy of the 21st century. And it has implications for our nation’s economic prosperity, as Corporate Voices for Working Families points out in our comprehensive position paper Strengthening America’s Economic Competitiveness: Public Policy Strategies to Improve Workforce Readiness.

 Corporate Voices has found through conversations with our corporate partners and in research conducted in conjunction with partner organizations (Are The Really Ready To Work?) that 21st century skills are very much valued by employers but new entrants to the workforce are sadly deficient. As we highlight in our policy recommendations for workforce readiness:

 By agreeing on new education standards that value a wider range of skills, including critically, thinking, communication, teamwork, creativity and professionalism, by encouraging schools to integrate these skills into the traditional school day, and by measuring a well how schools are teaching them, we will help ensure that all young people master the full set of competencies they need to success in school, work and life.

 Is it possible to teach these applied skills in the high school classroom? Yes. And some states are working hard at designing the curriculum and giving teachers the tools to get the job done. Here’s an example in West Virginia (“21st-Century Skills Focus Shifts W. Va. Teachers’ Roles” – EdWeek online, Jan. 5, 2009, by subscription only).

 As West Virginia increasingly emphasizes the teaching of content in application, the shift demands a fundamental change in teachers’ roles. Ms. Landin and teachers like her are no longer just purveyors of facts, but also the facilitators of elaborate activities that help students exercise what are often called 21st-century skills.

Business leaders and policymakers more and more say those higher-order, critical-thinking, communication, technological, and analytical skills are the ones crucial for students to master as they enter a service-oriented, entrepreneurial, and global workplace.

After integrating such skills into the state’s academic-content standards, West Virginia is now hard at work reorienting the training and professional support of its 20,000 public school teachers to ensure that they are capable of executing such projects.

 This is a subject that will gain considerable public and private sector attention in coming months as the Obama administration looks to create a 21st-century school system and restore our nation’s economic prosperity.

 For additional perspective on this important subject, see Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need – and What We Can Do About It.


By Allie Keyser and Amy Merrill