This whole approach to education reform for the 21st century…yeah, I need someone to explain it to me like I’m a fifth-grader.

I’ve been reading the recently published work of a few respected educators; experts such as Tony Wagner (The Global Achievement Gap), Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the American School System), and Yong Zhao (Catching Up or Leading the Way).  Their thoughts about the knowledge and skills students must develop to be contributing citizens in the 21st century are intriguing.

I know what you’re thinking…you read Ravitch’s book too and you’re thinking that her book isn’t about 21st century skills at all; it’s about testing and education policy.

Many of you are familiar with Yong Zhao, the brilliant, Chinese-born education expert formerly at Michigan State and now at the University of Oregon; you may have read his book as well and you’re thinking, his book is a comparison of the American and Chinese systems of education and how America’s getting it wrong.

Really the only title of the three which directly addresses 21st century skills is The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner.  The co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education interviewed top CEOs from across the country asking them what knowledge and skills our students need to be able to compete and contribute in our global community.

Actually these titles ARE related because they each express their serious concern for the high-stakes testing movement which many politicians have adopted as their blue ribbon education policy to meet the demands of the 21st century.

Our education system has its flaws of course, but the tenets of a liberal arts education afford students the opportunity to develop the skills they need for the 21st century.  Wagner states, “Effective communication, curiosity, and critical-thinking skills, as we will see, are much more than just the traditional desirable outcomes of a liberal arts education.  They are essential competencies and habits of mind for life in the twenty-first century.” (Wagner, 2008:xxiii)

Diane Ravitch argues similar to Wagner that “Without a comprehensive liberal arts education, our students will not be prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy, nor will they be equipped to make decisions based on knowledge, thoughtful debate, and reason.” (2010:226)

The characteristics associated with a liberal arts education don’t necessarily mesh with the high-stakes testing now popular with politicians.  Yong Zhao, states that “We thus face a choice of what we want: a diversity of talents, and individuals who are passionate, curious, self-confident, and risk taking; OR a nation of excellent test takers, outstanding performers on math and reading tests.” (2009:59)

The fact is the skills our students need to be competitive and contributing citizens are not new.  The tools they need to use, the economic systems and the much of the world has changed, but the skills needed to navigate and compete in this world have not.

In a recent article titled, 21st Century Skills: The Challenges Ahead, Andrew Rotherham and Daniel Willingham wrote “Critical thinking and problem solving, for example, have been components of human progress throughout history, from the development of early tools to agricultural advancements, to the inventions of vaccines, to land and sea exploration.  Such skills as information literacy and global awareness are not new….  The need for mastery of different kinds of knowledge, ranging from facts to complex analysis?  Not new either.  In The Republic, Plato wrote about four distinct levels of intellect.  Perhaps at the time, these were considered ‘3rd century BCE skills’?”[1]

So this is what I need explained to me…how does the political emphasis on basic skills in reading and math via high-stakes testing achieve the demands of the 21st century?  You understand of course that when you take direct aim at narrowing the curriculum at a basic level, you’re likely to achieve just that – a narrow and basic education.

In their book, 21st Century Skills; Learning for Life in Our Times, Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadell describe how a delegation of officials from the Chinese Ministry of Education were visiting schools in the U.S. in search of a curriculum which facilitates the aesthetic elements of a good education such as creativity and innovation.  One of the Chinese delegates, Mr. Zheng, observed students at a high school in northern California who were assigned to teams and engaged in a project.  Upon hearing more about what the students were discovering and learning, Mr. Zheng became increasingly excited and he “held up the school’s curriculum guide and asked, in English, ‘Where in here do you teach creativity and innovation?  I want to know how you teach this!  We need our students to learn how to do this!’” (2009:xix)

The curriculum director of the California school replied that these skills were not written into the school’s curriculum guide; rather these characteristics and skills are a part of our culture and our nation’s heritage.  He stated that “the challenge of tackling tough problems and the excitement of creating something new; in being rewarded for our new ideas, taking risks, failing, and trying again.”  These are characteristics which our country’s education system has always facilitated.

The curriculum director continued, “In a strange way, our U.S. schools have been becoming more like your schools in China, focused on learning what will be tested in the big exams that determine so much of a student’s future.” (2009:xx)

Given all of this evidence from education experts and others (Trilling & Fadell are from the business community), not to mention this country’s history of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, why are our policy-makers so head strong on high-stakes testing?

I acknowledge that our economy is changing, but we have made similar shifts before.  It’s this adaptability which is a strength of our country, and we will need to be attentive to the knowledge and skills our students need as well as the tools they’ll use.

Does our education system need some reform?  Yes.  Is the best approach through a narrow focus and high-stakes testing of reading and math?  Absolutely not.  That’s why I need someone to explain this to me like I’m a fifth-grader, because this is not an education policy which will benefit our students or the future of our country.

[1] Educational Leadership, September 2009, Vol. 67, No. 1, pg 16