In Manassas, The 3 R's Add Up to a Fourth: Rudimentary

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By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

Reading, writing and arithmetic are still the fundamental building blocks of education, but these days, they have some competition as educators reevaluate curriculum and prepare students for life in the 21st century.

"We need to decide what's worth keeping [in the classroom] and what needs to be abandoned if we are going to prepare students for the 21st century," Manassas School Superintendent Gail Pope told about 500 Manassas teachers Monday, outlining how the district plans to adapt. "We will not confine our children to our learning because they were born for another time."

With new technology emerging daily, more demands in the workplace and global competition, students need to do more than solve an algebra problem or regurgitate historical facts, she said. They need life skills that will make them competitive in a global economy.

Pope backed her presentation to Manassas educators at Grace E. Metz Middle School's auditorium with findings from the national organization Partnership for 21st Century Skills, or P21. Formed six years ago with the help of a $1.5 million grant from the Bush administration, the organization links educators and businesses to make sure students are learning what employers want.

"In the 20th century, it was all about memorizing content, but today it's not just about that. It's about being able to integrate other skills like critical thinking, communication and technology skills," Ken Kay, president of Partnership for 21st Century Skills, said in a phone interview. "Parents, educators and policymakers all know things have changed over the last 50 years, and we need a new model in education to match those changes."

Pope, whose speech echoed the findings of P21, said students need to have global awareness and skills in communication, critical thinking, leadership and problem-solving. They need to be accountable and understand other life skills, including how to maintain finances and stay healthy.

Pope said several initiatives taking shape will make Manassas students more competitive in the global economy. Technical writing will be emphasized in all grade levels this year, and critical thinking skills will be tested as teachers do more hands-on projects. There will also be a big push in technology, Pope said.

"This is a project of massive scope but must be approached with minute precision," Pope said about changing what students learn in the classroom. "We will be analyzing skills more, looking at new technology and implementing strategies so kids become self-directed learners."

With a $5,000 grant from Micron Technology, students will be able to partake this year in FIRST Lego League. FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology -- is an international nonprofit organization that aims to increase children's interest in science, math, engineering and technology by having them design, build and program a robot created with Lego products that must complete various tasks. Pope said students at Metz Middle and Mayfield Intermediate schools will compete in FIRST's competitions.

Manassas schools will also be implementing the Children's Engineering Project, which began this summer and is funded by $200,000 the schools received from the city through the Manassas Next initiative. Pope said kindergarten though eighth-grade students will be given design briefs to work through. The briefs will explore science concepts and give students hands-on learning experiences.

Pope said she is also in discussions with Northern Virginia Community College to open up engineering opportunities for students. A governor's school that will specialize in science, math and technology is on track to open in 2010. Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park students will be eligible to attend.

Pope and officials from P21 are not the first to notice a gap developing between what students know and what employers want. Research on the subject has been published, including a 2004 book by professors from Harvard and MIT.

The book, "The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market," discusses how technology has helped and hindered certain jobs and says education programs need to change to meet labor market realities.

"There's no question we want students to get better at basic skills, but that's not where all the good jobs will be," said economist and Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Richard Murnane, who co-authored the book with Frank Levy, an MIT professor. "Being good at problem-solving and complex communication is what is increasingly important."

Fifty years ago, humans were needed to file information, answer phones and help people board airplanes. Today, however, computers have eliminated many of those jobs, Murnane said in a phone interview. What is available now are the jobs computers can't do, the ones that require people to think creatively, communicate strongly and possess other skills not traditionally taught in classrooms.

Pope said she hopes students will get more problem-solving experience with the new technology initiatives. She said the school district will plan professional development workshops to help teachers incorporate 21st-century skills in the classroom and will look at ways to test students' skills.

"I think this is one of the most exciting times in the history of education," Pope said. "I'm confident educators in Manassas schools can prepare our students to be leaders."

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