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Americans Say Students Need More than 'Basics' for 21st Century Success

Just about everyone believes that success in the increasingly global economy depends on developing critical thinking and analytical skills in today's students, according to a national poll of registered voters.

That's the view of 99% of the respondents to the poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Peter D. Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

NEA Executive Director John Wilson, said, "Voters may be ahead of some policymakers in overwhelmingly understanding that 21st century skills are key to our nation's future well being. Perhaps elected officials and candidates will take a cue from the electorate and start focusing on this issue."

Wilson represents NEA on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. NEA is one of five Partnership member organizations that provided the funding for the survey.

A large majority -- 80% -- of the voters polled say the skills that young people will need to perform the jobs of the 21st century are different from what students needed 20 years ago. A majority also believes that schools need to do a better job of helping students acquire those skills.

These findings come in the midst of congressional consideration of a reauthorized version of the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB/ESEA). In its current form, rather than encouraging schools to prepare students to succeed in the 21st century global economy, NCLB forces schools to narrow their curriculum by focusing on math and reading and the approaches to those subjects that lend themselves to assessment by standardized tests. Critical thinking and other 21st century skills cannot be easily measured by standardized tests.

The federal accountability measures deem schools as successes or failures on the basis of student scores on annual standardized math and reading tests. NEA and other education advocates are fighting for revisions to correct this and other shortcomings of the current law.

In an op-ed piece published in the Oct. 14, 2007 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, Linda Darling-Hammond presents a compelling argument that our standardized tests are doing more harm than good. Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommun professor of education at Stanford University, where she has created the Stanford Educational Leadership Institute and the School Redesign Network.

She writes, "One of the central lessons of No Child Left Behind is that if school sanctions are tied to test scores, the testing tail can wag the schooling dog. And a key problem for the United States is that most of our tests aren't measuring the kinds of 21st century skills we need students to acquire and that are at the core of curriculum and assessment in high-achieving countries."

Darling-Hammond also notes, "Indeed, as state test scores have gone up under No Child Left Behind, scores on other tests measuring broader skills have not. Data on the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that the rate of improvement in math achievement has slowed considerably since No Child was passed in 2002, and reading achievement has completely stalled, with declines at the eighth-grade level. This is likely because a test prep curriculum in the early grades does not provide the foundation that students need to do higher-level work later on."

According to the poll conducted for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills:

  • Eighty-eight percent of voters say they believe that schools can and should incorporate 21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving skills, computer and technology skills, and communication and self-direction skills into the curriculum.
  • Sixty-six percent of voters say they believe that students need more than just the basics of reading, writing and math; schools also need to incorporate a broader range of skills.
  • Fifty-three percent say they believe schools should place an equal emphasis on 21st century skills and basic skills.

According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, these latest findings mirror a similar study in 2006 of employers by The Conference Board, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Corporate Voices for Working Families and the Society for Human Resource Management.

In that study, "Are They Really Ready to Work?" employers said that the future U.S. workforce is "woefully ill-prepared for the demands of today's (and tomorrow's) workforce" and they cited 21st century skills as "very important" to success at work.

"We now know that employers and the public are united in their understanding of what it takes to compete today," said Partnership President Ken Kay. "These new polling results provide education leaders and policymakers the tremendous opportunity to make our education system more aligned with the needs of the 21st century workforce. The public strongly supports more rigorous expectations for students that integrate 21st century skills into core academic subjects. Educators want to equip students with these skills, but they need the public policy, professional development, assessment and curricular tools to accomplish this."

Kay said that the results validate the efforts of states such as Massachusetts, Maine, North Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin that are working to infuse 21st century skills into their standards, assessments and professional development. He urged education stakeholders nationwide to use these results as a call to action toward implementing a 21st century skills framework for learning in their states.

He also added that toward its commitment to helping education leaders implement 21st century teaching and learning, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills is developing an online, one-stop-shop for 21st century skills-related information, resources and community tools called "Route 21."

Set to debut on the Web on November 7, Route 21 will showcase how 21st century skills can be supported through standards, professional development, assessments, and teaching and learning.

Funding for the poll was made possible through the support of the following Partnership for 21st Century Skills' board member companies: NEA, Blackboard Inc., KnowledgeWorks Foundation, Pearson and SAP.


  • anc_dyn_linksSummary of Poll Findings