Obama And The '21st Century Skills' Mirage

March 11, 2009

The big news in the world of education reform this week is a speech the president delivered yesterday to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. I've embedded some of the most controversial portions of the speech in a video below for you to judge for yourselves, but the bottom line from the speech is similar to what Mr. Obama has been saying for more than a year now, dating well back into his campaign. In sum, President Obama is taking the same kind of post-partisan approach to school reform as he has to many other issues, trying to find common ground with disparate elements of both parties on issues such as early childhood education, funding, teacher pay, and charter schools.

But I want to talk about a particular sentence of the President's speech because it caught my attention, especially in light of a pretty revealing study I just came across. About halfway through his speech, Mr. Obama declared:

"I'm calling on our nation's governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity."

Now this is a loaded statement. The only way to read it free of any controversy is to suggest that Mr. Obama was simply calling on educators and policy makers to devote more resources and attention to improving the quality of standardized tests, which is how I hope and largely believe he intended it. But perhaps a more natural reading is that the president, like a large segment of the educator population who support a liberal view of curriculum, wants schools to focus less on facts, rote memorization, and test-taking and more on critical thinking and creative problem solving--the kinds of skills our children allegedly lack but will need in the 21st century.

Now I've done a fair bit of talking with students across the country, and one thing you can say to a room full of young people to get their agreement is that their schools should stop teaching them to memorize random facts and should instead teach them the kinds of critical thinking skills that they'll need in life. The line works well with parents too; it's a no-lose statement. No reasonably intelligent person, it would seem, would build an education on a foundation of fact memorization and test-taking when they could instead be learning how to solve problems on their own. And if only America's schools could get back to the glory days where we were number one in the world in education and where our kids all thought critically in schools instead of being forced to take the same boring basic subjects, memorizing facts and so on and so on.

Sound right to you? Sure. Except the whole premise of the argument is unfounded. America has never had an education system that emphasized critical thinking over learning basic facts, memorization, and other boring standardized test type materials. This Phi Delta Kappan study bears out that fact rather convincingly: a host of studies on classroom instruction over the past four decades have shown striking consistency: around 90 percent of the time in school classrooms is made up of teacher-directed instruction and individual student work today, just as it was in a 1983 study and a 1984 study based on data going all the way back to 1970.

But surely NCLB has torpedoed the level of intellectual freedom our children experience in some way, right? All those standardized tests every year and the "teaching to the test" that must be happening has to have some kind of narrowing effect on what our kids learn, if not how they learn it, right? Kids today aren't learning the arts and music because our schools only care about their reading and math test scores, right? Apparently that's not true either. According to the PDK study, before NCLB and the accountability wave of the late 90s, schools spent 37 percent of their time on English, 17 percent on math, and 13 percent on related arts, with 5 percent each to science and social studies. Today, the numbers are 34 percent English, 16 percent math, 11 percent related arts, and roughly 6 percent each on science and social studies. If NCLB has torpedoed our kids diverse learning experiences, it's been a pretty gentle attack.

So at the end of the day, this whole "21st Century Skills" debate is something of a red herring. America's schools have always placed a higher priority on basic math facts, reading and grammar skills, and science and social studies facts than they have on music, the arts, and other non-academic courses. And those subjects have always been taught in teacher-centered classrooms, not in free-flowing, collective project type learning communities. One could certainly argue that this is a problem because it hampers creativity and so on, but in truth, that argument is based in theory, not in the history of our schools.

(see video below)


Aaron Tang is the co-director of Our Education, a non-profit organization working to build a national youth movement for quality education. He also teaches 8th grade history in Saint Louis, MO.

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I graduated hign school in 1977 and at that time, most of the students could read, write and do math.<br />
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I do not see that anymore, and although the classrooms are smaller, I believe the teachers (however certified and/or licensed they may be) lack much of the basic skills, which would severely impact their ability to help students in this category, upon which most other education hinges heavily:<br />
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(Here&;s a not so short excerpt from my master document:<br />
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We must admit we are puzzled at the requirement of ‘certification’: We are well aware of the severe deficiency of basic skills which the average candidate might possess, even if they have been certified or licensed, (and evidence actually suggests a negative correlation between student performance levels and teacher certification !) We are thoroughly qualified to teach people to work with the basics better: if one can write at this level that usually means that one can work with the language adequately and is prepared to help others! (Or can make oneself so meddlesome that the entire system (world) becomes inspired to take a prolonged look in the mirror and figure out what works and to discard those strategies whose usefulness has expired.) Also plainfully obvious is this: since a higher level of writing would better equip instructors to teach (and reach) students, and most of the systems have been failing for years, the ability to write has not been emphasized as a major factor to determine the effectiveness of teachers across all disciplines ! That most likely means that we have effectively wasted the better part of 20-30 years or more in pursuit of alternative teaching methods and technological advances when in reality, the answer was ‘at our fingertips’! (Wait a minute, it also means that the answer WAS OUR FINGERTIPS (and it still is!)) So to have some kind of certification or licensure in order to teach is not improving the quality of education. (And since it is not improving education, guess what it is doing to education?) Although some of the school districts that actually require education are obviously doing better than others, would a greater or earlier or even an exclusive emphasis on these fundamentals (3 Rs) have made those districts work even better? Besides, considering that children seem almost unable to think rationally and given that the children so thoroughly reject the fundamentals indicates more erroneous thought so MUCH ERROR IS PROCEEDING and little learning is taking place! <br />
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And from the looks of the basic skill level showing up at college level, it appears basics are sorely lacking.<br />
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If anyone would like more of this plus other ways that we have been proposing to solve the education crisis, we can send you more info.<br />
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I&;ll be checking this site frequently, just leave a note. Hope to hear from you AARON!

So the matter is this: we must somehow get students and people in general to be better able to think critically, but until the basics are more thoroughly taught, no real progress can be made and, in fact, other areas may even have begun to waste away. Educators seem fixed on establishing computer based solutions but we still need teachers who are themselves solidly educated for all disciplines. I may have already posted this link in my previous note<br />
<a ref="http://www.writingcommission.org">National Commission on Writing</a><br />
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By specifying the need for a higher level of writing, the Commission makes plain the need for a higher level of reading, but don&;t forget about math!<br />
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Critical thinking will be severely hampered unless we work more on the basics.<br />
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Peace and Love is important too!

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