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President's Viewpoint: Time For America's Education System To Wake Up




Students today live in a wired world, and most of them are adept at using computers to find information, play or upload video clips, and even create personal Web pages.

The digital age has dawned, but too many of our schools still rely on models from 1908 to meet the growing and changing needs of the 21st century. Simply put, many of our approaches are outmoded and out of touch, which makes it harder for educators to challenge students and hold their interest.

NEA is a firm proponent of providing all children with the critical, intellectual, and personal skills they need to be successful in the 21st century. This is why we serve on the board of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21)—a coalition of business, education, community, and government leaders focused on infusing creativity and innovation into K–12 education.

The fundamental belief of this partnership is that as the world is flattening out, it is imperative that our students are equipped with skills that reach beyond those required for a simple multiple-choice test. Our nation will need students capable of filling emerging job sectors like robotics, biotechnology, and microelectronics. And frankly, if we fail to move our students up the value chain by staying competitive, these jobs will simply go elsewhere.

As other nations around the world strive to improve their schools to create global citizens, the education conversation in America is dominated by an obsession with math and reading tests. This is a dangerous approach in an increasingly competitive global economy. We are clearly failing to do all we can to prepare our students to enter the 21st century workforce and secure our place as a world leader.

A national poll conducted recently by Public Opinion Strategies and Peter D. Hart Research Associates on behalf of P21 found that 88 percent of voters believe that schools can, and should, incorporate 21st century concepts such as critical thinking and problem-solving skills, computer and technology skills, and communication and self-direction skills into their curriculum.

Clearly, we have aimed too low at a time when the stakes are too high. We're not going to get the students we need unless we change what and how we teach. This month's cover story is just one example of this challenge.

It is inconceivable that textbook selection and purchasing decisions are made without the involvement of teachers. The current system is terribly shortsighted and robs the real experts—classroom teachers—of their ability to fully harness the imagination of our students and help children acquire the skills necessary to prosper in the future. In my view, this spells more resistance to change and more of the same unrewarding outcomes in America's public schools.

We have absolutely no idea what the world will look like in the next 100 years. The only thing we know for certain is that the pace of change will continue, and probably even accelerate. It is our job to prepare our students to adapt and meet whatever challenges they might face in the future. We can't do that by living in the past.

 

Dennis Van Roekel, NEA President

 
© 2004 Photo by NEA staff photographer. Courtesy of the National Education Association. All Rights Reserved

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November, 2008