kitchen table math, the sequel: why 21st century skills?

Friday, March 6, 2009

why 21st century skills?

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills was put together by a coalition of 8 organizations:
Founding Organizations:

AOL Time Warner Foundation
Apple Computer, Inc.
Cable in the Classroom
Cisco Systems, Inc.
Dell Computer Corporation
Microsoft Corporation
National Education Association

Seven of these are tech companies; one is the NEA. That tells me this is a case of converging interests: the tech companies want to sell technology to schools; the NEA wants to undermine test-based accountability.

What do these two goals have in common, you ask?

On the face of it, not much.

My hat is off to The Partnership: they've come up with an ingenious scheme to make these things happen by linking a widely disliked entity -- the NEA -- with something everybody wants: more, more technology.

Here's how it works.

reduced accountability:

As people like Elena Silva and Linda Darling-Hammond have argued, the states aren't in a position to create sound, objective testing programs to assess 21st century "learning and thinking skills" like "Creativity and Innovation Skills" or "Contextual Learning Skills." The Partnership makes no bones about it, stating flatly that standardized tests aren't up to the job: "Standardized tests alone can measure only a few of the important skills and knowledge students should learn. A balance of assessments, including high-quality standardized testing along with effective classroom assessments, offers students a powerful way to master the content and skills central to success."

At a minimum, shifting the focus away from "college knowledge" to 21st century skills, as my own district has done, offers educators an alternative standard, which can't be assessed by objective means and by which they can be deemed successful regardless of scores on state tests, NAEP, SAT, ACT, etc., etc.

tech sales to schools

The NEA is committed to "child-centered" teaching, as you can see here, here, and here. Child-centered teaching doesn't work, and a large majority of parents dislike it intensely, but the hopes and dreams of parents cut no ice with unions and the ed schools, so tant pis. Thus the edu-world has spent the past 100 years trying to kill off the liberal arts disciplines in spite of the fact that virtually no one outside the edu-world wants them to do this. And it responds to its chronic failure to educate children, as well as to the constant push-back from parents and taxpayers, by dreaming up new versions of William Heard Kirkpatrick's Project Method and pitching them to the public as reform.

That is where Intel et al come in. Read through the Partnership web site and you find repeated references to project based learning, inquiry, "interdisciplinary themes" and the like, all of which can be pursued via the collaborative wonders of "technology." Unions are bad, but tech is good, so tech is used to justify the need for less liberal arts, more projects, and a winding down of standardized testing.

Here is Gerald Bracey, writing in a recent letter to Education Week (registration required):
I was ready to toss out [the term] “21st-century skills” until I was skimming your recent article on the topic and found it familiar-sounding (“ ‘21st-Century Skills’ Focus Shifts W.Va. Teachers’ Role,” Jan. 7, 2009). Then I decided we could keep the concept, but just rename it. Let’s call it Progressive Education, or Digital Dewey, or The Reincarnation of William Heard Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick, one of John Dewey’s colleagues, wrote “The Project Method” for the September 1918 Teachers College Record.

If the Partnership succeeds - it has signed up 10 partner states in 7 years - the union will be able to teach "skills" that can't be assessed and the tech companies will be able to sell schools the technology they need to do it.

et voila

Joanne Jacobs on 21st century skills
Industry Makes Pitch That Cellphones Belong in Classroom
Progressive Education in the 1940s (youtube)


SteveH said...

Low expectations and accountability. The tech companies add no credibility. They just want to sell stuff and the education market is so easy. Tell them what they want to hear. IBM did it with colleges and Apple did it with K-12. Now it's a model for everyone. Educators are easy marks and spend big chunks of money at a time.

What bothers me the most is that those pushing 21st century skills know that there are a lot of people who disagree for fundamental reasons. They still feel justified in cramming it all down everyone's throats. It's not an option.

SteveH said...

Surprise! My son came home from school today and said that a teacher wants to loan my son (and a couple of other kids) a MacBook to use for a month. Their goal is to write something up at the end to convince the school committee to buy more Mac-based computers than Windows-based computers. I'm not creative enough to make this up.

This reminds me of this video on the Apple iPod iRack:

Nicksmama said...

Steve, why don't you have your son write something up that supports neither Windows nor Mac, but Linux and OpenOffice products (free, of course) that run on both platforms? BTW, my 12 year old knows more about technology that all the IT certified teachers (trained by the school system) I've ever met. All they know is PowerPoint..PowerPoint...PowerPoint..

SteveH said...

"...why don't you have your son write something up that supports neither Windows nor Mac,..."

I think we'll play it safe and beg off due to many other commitments. I don't know where this is coming from and I don't my son getting into the middle of it.

Linux is an interesting choice. (My wife is a Sr. Unix Administrator.) However, the school would probably use it as an excuse for hiring an expensive consultant.

SteveH said...

"All they know is PowerPoint..PowerPoint...PowerPoint.."

This brings up another issue of 21st century skills. It's a two-way street. The skills aren't just for kids. I think our individual teacher web pages haven't been updated in years, if there is even one there to begin with. I know that they have had training of sorts, but the school sets no expectations.

At an open house, the school talked about how assignments can be found on, but a discussion evolved about how not everything is out there. Their response was that ultimately, it's up to the student to find out what's due in class. It's passed off as a student character and responsibility thing. The student has to take control of his/her learning. (Why don't we go back to pencil and paper to develop real character.) The school assigned a resource person to put the information on line, but it doesn't help if the teachers don't give her the information.

Part of the problem is that all of this becomes contractural. The school can't require teachers to stay even 10 minutes extra at the end of the day to update their web page or SchoolNotes with the day's assignments.

Then there is the idea that 21st century skills are supposed to help the learning process. They expect kids to do eveything on the computer, but my son gets scribbled notes on assignments that he's printed out. (When he does get something back.)

Since they expect that all kids have computers at home with high-speed internet connections, students could just email assignments to the teacher. The teacher could make comments in the document and email it right back. You might get a few more iterations of learning that way.

As a parent, I want feedback. I help my son with his assignments and they get sent off to that big black hole - the school. Assigmments and tests hardly ever come home, and when they do, it's well past any point of effective review.

They put many things into portfolios at school and parents are told that they can come in any time to review them. They are told that portfolios are good, but they never apply critical thinking to the problem. Most of the stuff in the portfolio was once in electronic form. Keep it there, add the teacher comments, and email them to the parents ... in a timely fashion!

And now our school is ordering more SmartBoards. One school committee member questioned the purchase, but the school said that one of the teachers is willing to get more training to help the other teachers. Right, my son says that it's barely used in his class. I help out on one after-school project, and the SmartBoard is used to access the internet. There is a PC there already, so they could just project the image and forget the SmartBoard.

My son had to prepare a math topic for presentation on a SmartBoard. The presentation was recorded so that it could be replayed. The teacher put them on his blog that he developed for a course he was taking. It would have been better to take a digitial video of the kids. My son can go from our video camera to a YouTube post in minutes. In theory, SmartBoards may have some useful apps, but most uses have very common (and cheaper) alternatives.

I'm sorry, but when I go to my son's school, I run into an intellectual disconnect. It's so wide that I dare not say anything. Instead of offering input on how something might be done better, I feel like saying: "What are you doing!"

21st century skills are tied in directly with technology, but schools use very little critical thinking with their evaluation and use. They don't have enough domain knowledge and experience.

It's all quite sad and ironic.

Barry Garelick said...

21st century skills are tied in directly with technology, but schools use very little critical thinking with their evaluation and use. They don't have enough domain knowledge and experience.

Sort of like using your car to take a walk around the block.

Catherine Johnson said...

the education market is so easy

My district hosts a technology event for parents at which tech vendors display their wares & the kids demonstrate how they work.

Interestingly, they've never held a fair for assistive technology, which Andrew must have because he can't talk. We also have, I believe, more than one hearing-impaired student who requires assistive tech.

I've spent my own money & Medicaid's money trying to find out what kind of assistive technology is available; we even went to an Illinois-state funded assistive tech department in Springfield, IL for help.

Andrew's teachers have pushed for tech; it's not an issue at that level. And the school eventually ordered a Dynamo that belongs to him & can be used at home. But that took years to make happen & involved a great deal of time and effort on our part.

So: no tech fairs for kids with disabilities who actually need tech!

Catherine Johnson said...

What bothers me the most is that those pushing 21st century skills know that there are a lot of people who disagree for fundamental reasons. They still feel justified in cramming it all down everyone's throats.


What makes these people think they can dictate what my child can and cannot learn?

Now that C. is in Hogwarts, this question is even more stark: we're paying tuition in the midst of a recession/depression to purchase what our public school refuses to provide.

Catherine Johnson said...

Meanwhile I'm still paying fantastically high taxes to pay for education many, many other parents here also don't want.

When you ask parents, most will say they want college preparation.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Nicksmama!

Great to see you!

Anonymous said...

In the district where I now live, many kids go from high school to a technical school. Cosmetology, auto mechanic and other shop-type fields, various IT fields, various medical fields (medical and nursing assistant, surgery tech, radiology or lab tech etc.). Many of those fields used to be offered in high school; now it is up to the families to pay for them afterwards. The cost can be significant; I was told by one medical assistant that her 10-month program cost $10,000. How is that progress? BTW, these jobs not only pay decent wages, but can't be outsourced, either.

I see a need for strong college prep, but some districts also need strong vocational prep. Pretending that all kids should go to college and watering down the college prep curriculum accordingly serves no one well. The military does a great job of vocational education that translates into good civilian jobs.

Ben Calvin said...

If one needed a laptop for school, the cheapest platform would probably be a netbook from Dell or Acer (@ $200) plus the free Open Office suite.

But it begs the question of what do students need laptops for? Probably useful for papers in Middle or High School, but not as a substitute for traditional teaching.

Catherine Johnson said...

My son came home from school today and said that a teacher wants to loan my son (and a couple of other kids) a MacBook to use for a month. Their goal is to write something up at the end to convince the school committee to buy more Mac-based computers than Windows-based computers.


Rob said...

My mostly-Gen-Y friends must think I'm some kind of Neanderthal throwback, but I keep pounding away at them about the validity of even having all of this tech in the classrooms. There seems to be little or no evidence that computers improve student achievement. Worse yet, as you've pointed out, the committees that push so hard to get computers into the classrooms are largely manned by representatives of tech companies & agencies that stand to profit enormously. This is a classic - and very dangerous - case of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. It's tragic that we're blindly allowing other programs to be slashed to make available funding for an unproven strategy that has such clearly questionable motives.

I urge everyone to read Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology from the Alliance for Childhood to explore this troubling issue further.

I'm not saying that kids shouldn't have the opportunity to acquire computer-use skills in school, but we've got to move much more cautiously and mindfully towards that. Our society has developed (guided forcably by Big Tech) a cavalier and overzealous emphasis on pushing technology on kids. The current adoption of computers in education seems terribly reckless and shows little consideration for the long-term effects.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Rob - one of the ktm regulars told me her district is cutting teachers and buying technology!

I find that unbelievable.

It's not "technology" in the sense of the district being flat broke and moving to some online courses.

It's just "technology" in the standard add-on sense....SMART Boards & clickers & things of that nature.

There are a couple of studies showing that learning declines due to technology. They've probably been posted here at some point.

Catherine Johnson said...

We now have a full-time, tenured teacher who does nothing but "technology coordination."

That means he fixes the computers & SMART Boards, which constantly break down.

We also have a contract with repair people.

The other night when the super got up to give her presentation she said, "Let's hope the technology works this time. You never know."

In fact, the "technology" has never once worked at a board meeting.

When the technology coordinator gave his presentation he spoke from a yellow legal pad.

Paul B said...

Speaking of 21st century skills. My neighbor, who recently retired from a neighboring district, tells me that the newest inovation there is time clocks for teachers. All teachers are being converted to hourly employees and they get docked for anything less than 7 hours on the clock.

I suppose this is an inovation the admins just discovered from reading about 20th century assembly lines. Of course this is likely to be accompanied by PD sessions on professionalism. When this comes to my district, as it surely will, I'll punch the clock as soon as they start to reimburse me for paper, toner, pens, markers, and the three hours per day I spend working at home.