Whither 21st century skills?

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (known as P-21) announced the other day that it has entered into a “strategic management agreement” with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) under which the chiefs will house the P-21 team and provide them with diverse management services. P-21 is also searching for a new executive director to replace Ken Kay.

It's impossible to be certain from this news whether America can expect a continuation of P-21-as-we-know-it or some sort of major makeover. Also unknowable is whether such a makeover would mean the virtual disappearance of P-21 under the CCSSO’s multi-part agenda and priorities, or the enhancement of P-21 as a major project located there and vigorously projected across the country via CCSSO's visibility, stature, and multiple mechanisms.

P-21’s disappearance would be a gain for America. The right kind of makeover could be a gain, too. But additional traction for the organization’s current agenda would be bad for the country, bad for the new “Common Core” standards and the assessments being developed around them, and possibly bad for CCSSO as well.

The best thing about P-21 today is that there’s very little there. It makes a lot of noise but is, in fact, a sort of Potemkin organization, consisting largely of some high-profile names on the masthead, most of them corporate, and an industrious, well-spoken, non-educator executive. In fact, “21st century skills” are beginning to be an object of mirth and mockery in respectable circles. CCSSO, by contrast, is a pillar of the K-12 establishment. This quasi-merger gives plenty of cause for concern.

Though most of P-21’s stated goals are laudable—who doesn’t want their kids to be creative, capable of working with others, technologically competent, proficient at complex cognitive tasks, etc.?—P-21’s vision of education rests on a fallacious understanding of human learning. This has been brilliantly and devastatingly explicated by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, as well as by organizations such as Common Core, education thinkers like E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch, and veteran education watchers such as Jay Mathews.

P-21 also flies a false flag. It asserts that its goal is simply to incorporate the “higher order skills” ostensibly needed to succeed in today’s workforce into a school curriculum that will remain as attentive as ever to basic skills and core content. Yet nearly everyone else realizes that, in a zero-sum school day, this sort of curricular expansionism is next to impossible. Do you emphasize “media skills” or the causes of the Civil War? Creativity or multiplication tables? Interpersonal sensitivity or grammatically correct sentences? Utilitarian work-place skills or knowledgeable appreciation of Michelangelo, Mozart, and Dickens? Something’s gotta give, at least in schools and classrooms that already struggle to impart the basics.

To be sure, the classrooms of uncommonly gifted instructors sometimes display inspired fusions of basic skills, academic content and higher-order skills. But don’t thank P-21 for it, because the most important of these “21st century” skills were just as important in the 1st and 18th centuries and great teachers in fine schools have long infused them into their lesson plans and student interactions. Yes, it’s commendable, but it’s also far from today’s norm and not apt to become tomorrow’s. Not, at least, without a radical upgrading of teachers and wholesale expansion of instructional time.

Observe, too, that when schools achieve this kind of fusion they’re dealing only with a portion of the P-21 agenda, what most educators would term the cognitive portion: reasoning, analyzing, solving multi-part problems, organizing ideas and synthesizing information, writing cogently and speaking persuasively, etc.

In developing the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and math, CCSSO and its partners (including some extraordinarily astute standards-writers) achieved a praiseworthy melding of those cognitive elements of 21st century skills with core academic skills and a fair amount of vital content knowledge. They are nearly seamless. But P-21’s arrival under CCSSO’s roof could sully and diminish this accomplishment.

For despite Mr. Kay’s loud protestations to the contrary, what P-21 has really been about is supplanting basic skills and knowledge, and not just with cognitive skills. Equally revered in the P-21 cosmology are a host of inter-personal, behavioral, attitudinal, and "life" and "innovation" skills and attributes, many of them beyond the power of schools to impart, not to mention being essentially impossible to assess.

And it’s impossible to believe that they’re universally embraced by state superintendents, including some of the very best. Picture David Steiner, Deborah Gist, Paul Pastorek, or Eric Smith, for example, sitting on a podium and applauding while someone asserts that “global awareness,” “dealing positively with praise,” and “understanding international public health issues” are as much the responsibility of today’s schools as ensuring that youngsters learn algebra, biology, U.S. history, and how to write a cogent paragraph.

Defenders of the Common Core standards will need to take extraordinary pains to keep their handiwork from such dilution and confusion. Indeed, P-21 isn’t the only risk here. At least one of the two new assessment-development consortia could—probably in the name of “performance assessment” and “career readiness”—easily drown in the soft stuff, in which case the tests it is building may not do justice to the academic standards with which they are meant to be aligned. Which would also mean that implementation of the Common Core by states and districts could be distorted in the direction of the soft stuff that will be on the tests and for which schools and educators will be held to account.

One hopes that Secretary Duncan is mindful of this risk, but his big assessment speech last week wandered all over the 21st century terrain. And those straying off the cognitive reservation can also invoke Duncan’s boss, whose March 2009 denunciation of “bubble tests” called for a new generation of assessments that would address not only “problem-solving and critical thinking” but also “entrepreneurship and creativity.” Yes, there is reason to believe that President Obama has drained more than a few steins of P-21 propaganda. Maybe his education secretary has, too.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean that CCSSO will cave or that the Common Core standards are imperiled. It’s conceivable, even, that CCSSO has strategically reasoned that the surest way to thresh the 21st century grain from all its chaff is to bring P-21 into its own combine. We must hope so.

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