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Why I Don't Like 21st-Century Reports

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 10, 2008 6:20 AM

Another well-intentioned report on the future of American schools reached my cubicle recently: "21st Century Skills, Education and Competitiveness: A Resource and Policy Guide." It is available on the Web at www.21stcenturyskills.org/index.php. It is full of facts and colorful illustrations, with foresight and relevance worthy of the fine organizations that funded it -- the National Education Association, the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, the Ford Motor Company Fund and the Tucson-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a leading education advocacy organization that also produced the report and sent it to me and many other people.

So why, after reading it, did I feel like tossing it into the waste basket?

Maybe this is just my problem. Maybe everyone else who obsesses about schools loves these reports. There certainly are a lot of them. I seem to get at least one a month. There must be a big demand.

The reports are usually sponsored by energetic organizations, like the ones above, that have devoted themselves to making schools better for our children. They include business groups, teachers unions, think tanks, government agencies and universities. They have a lot of meetings about what the report should say, hire good writers, editors and graphic artists, put in long days and late nights, print up and put online the results, hold news conferences, answer questions and think about their next report.

The problem I have is that these major pronouncements often seem to have been conceived and written by people who are miles away from real classrooms. Many of the producers and writers, I am sure, have been educators. They know what it is like to work with children for whom the notion of a 21st-century classroom is as inexplicable -- and maybe as laughable -- as the school janitor coming to work in a spacesuit. But so little of that hard-earned knowledge of the grungy unpredictability of teaching ever finds its way into their big national studies.

This latest report is a perfect example. The first three paragraphs summarize its point very nicely, decorated with the ellipses that are common in this form of communication:

"In an economy driven by innovation and knowledge . . . in marketplaces engaged in intense competition and constant renewal . . . in a world of tremendous opportunities and risks . . . in a society facing complex business, political, scientific, technological, health and environmental challenges . . . and in diverse workplaces and communities that hinge on collaborative relationships and social networking . . . the ingenuity, agility and skills of the American people are crucial to U.S. competitiveness.

"Our ability to compete as a nation -- and for states, regions and communities to attract growth industries and create jobs -- demands a fresh approach to public education. We need to recognize that a 21st century education is the bedrock of competitiveness -- the engine, not simply an input, of the economy.

"And we need to act accordingly: Every aspect of our education system -- preK--12, postsecondary and adult education, after-school and youth development, workforce development and training, and teacher preparation programs -- must be aligned to prepare citizens with the 21st century skills they need to compete."

Okay. Sounds good. I kept reading. There was much detail, accompanied by pie charts and graphs and photos of smiling children, about the growth of information service jobs, the lagging improvement in student proficiency and the changing demographic character of the country. It listed the "21st century skills" that our children need for the rapidly evolving labor market. These included thinking critically and making judgments, solving complex, multidisciplinary, open-ended problems, developing creative and entrepreneurial thinking, communicating and collaborating, making innovative use of knowledge, information and opportunities and taking charge of financial, health and civic responsibilities.

Good stuff. I liked all of those suggestions. I had only one question: How in the name of every teacher who has ever contemplated suicide during the unit on fractions are we supposed to make those things happen?

Tragically, the report ran out of steam at that point, as do most of these heavily promoted studies. It said that we need to get support from voters, employers and educators. Fine. It recommended new positions and budget items in federal, state and local offices, for instance, a senior adviser to the president for 21st-century skills, 21st-century skills offices at both the education and labor departments, a $2 billion research and development fund, and so on.

I looked carefully, but it never explained how teachers are going to find the time to introduce all these skills to students who, at the moment, are still struggling with plain old reading, writing and math.

Maybe that will be the topic of the next report. Maybe I am not appreciating the importance of painting the big picture so everyone knows where we have to go. I showed a draft of this column to a spokesman for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. He said many schools are already successfully incorporating the report's ideas into their lessons. He said the Catalina Foothills district in Tucson has "completely revamped their education system around 21st-century skills." Progress has also been made at schools in Lawrence Township, Ind., Manassas, Virginia Beach, Milwaukee and Darlington, Wis.

I welcome e-mails from anyone involved in those schools on what specific changes have been made. I will be keeping an eye on the introduction of 21st-century skills in Manassas, not far from where I sit. My Post colleague Jennifer Buske wrote in August of initial moves in this direction by Manassas Superintendent Gail Pope. The organizations involved in the 21st-century effort are staffed by good people. I am going to assume that we agree that we need to look closely at the details of teaching these skills, and in that spirit I want to make two suggestions.

First, please try to avoid the lethal disease that infects so many of these studies. I call it All-at-once-itis. That refers to the irresistible urge to insist that the changes have to be accomplished ALL AT ONCE, or we will fall short of our important objectives. In past columns, I noted the appearance of this ailment in otherwise admirable reports such as "Tough Choices or Tough Times" (2006) or " 'Restoring Value' to the High School Diploma" (2007). In this democracy we never make good changes all at once. The presidential campaign and economic crisis are proof of that. So please don't tell us we have to.

Second -- and this will wreak havoc with report deadlines -- why not wait to release your recommendations until you have tried them out on at least two or three schools with a few hundred students? I won't insist on proof of success. I just want to get a sense of how young human beings, and their teachers, react to all these new hoops they must jump through. (This will also help stifle my suspicion that you don't actually know how to do any of the things you are suggesting.)

No one is going to pay attention to what I want, of course. The report writers know I will keep reading their stuff, full of hope that I will eventually find some classroom reality among all the pie charts.

I am not saying the people who issue these pronouncements are wrong. Many of their ideas are excellent. But if we are going to make them happen, they have to show us what it is going to take, besides just more concerned citizens spending more money to produce more reports like this one.

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