Sunday, March 08, 2009

A 21st-century caution

Very interesting piece. May have relevance here in Texas as we begin seeing the goals of various public education reforms being presented. The issue of 21st century skills in the Texas context also seem to be void of biliteracy skills.


February 24, 2009
Boston Globe

STATE education commissioner Mitchell Chester says he is surprised at the sharp criticism of a task force proposal to introduce "21st-century skills" - such as media literacy, critical thinking, and working in groups - into local classrooms. But he shouldn't be shocked. The 21st-century skills movement could return Massachusetts to an era of low academic standards.

In November, a task force made its case why "straight academic content is no longer enough" to ensure student success in college and the workplace. The authors urged state education officials to introduce 21st-century skills into teacher training and curriculum guides. Since then, state education officials have elaborated little on what that might mean in practice. But critics, including the nonprofit Pioneer Institute, have made a powerful case that the plan could set back education reform efforts in Massachusetts by advancing a set of soft, vague skills at the expense of academic content.

Before the Education Reform Act of 1993, Massachusetts classrooms were adrift, without solid curriculum frameworks or a comprehensive statewide test to assess student progress and diagnose deficiencies in knowledge. After great efforts to implement standards-based education and create a graduation requirement test, Massachusetts students routinely outperform their national counterparts and perform on a par with the best international students, including those in Japan and Singapore. The first duty of the state Board of Education, which is scheduled to hear an update tomorrow on 21st-century skills, should be to protect these hard-won gains.

Ten years ago, students in Connecticut outperformed their Massachusetts counterparts on a national reading assessment test. But after education policy makers there shifted focus from an emphasis on content knowledge to the "how to" methods favored by the 21st-century skills movement, test scores plummeted. Acknowledging the error, Connecticut educators are reintroducing methods favored in Massachusetts.

In fact, there is strong evidence that emphasis on basic skills leads to success at reasoning and problem-solving. Fourth-graders here ranked second worldwide in science and tied for third in math last year on the sophisticated Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study exam.

Given such success, the burden should be on 21st-century skills proponents to prove that their methods offer a better way to prepare students for college and the workplace. So far, they haven't done that. And while they say 21st-century skills will only complement the state's current efforts, it's not clear that the approach can be implemented without de-emphasizing academic content.

Teachers and parents across the state just don't know enough about 21st-century skills. The unnerving part is that the proponents don't seem to know much more.

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