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Will 21st century skills weaken our federal education programs?

The Common Core blog, which shares my distrust of the 21st century skills movement, is warning about the appointment of Apple executive Karen Cator as head of the U.S. Education Department's Office of Education Technology. I don't know Cator. Common Core says she once chaired the board of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the movement's leading organization, and might push their agenda in Washington. I think the partnership is led by well-intentioned people, but so far they have done a lousy job showing how their approach will improve schools.

My recent column about a book by two partnership leaders made this case in more detail. Lynne Munson and James Elias, who wrote the Common Core post about Cator, seem to think she would use her new job to divert more education dollars to technology companies and forget about giving students a deep and balanced education.

Learning, Munson and Elias say,

"didn’t seem to be a major concern of Cator’s when we heard her speak at P21’s National Summit last June. Then she was just talking about how the 21st century skills agenda can save business money. She explained, for example, that P21 added “health literacy” to its skills framework because employers “need ‘health-literate’ people to keep down health care costs.” Apparently those sick days just eat in to the bottom line."

They say "21st century skills proponents are so in thrall to the idea of schools as a vehicle for selling more technology that “learning” sort of becomes a secondary concern, at best."

I wouldn't go that far. I think the people in the partnership want to make our schools better. But they have provided little guidance to teachers on what they are doing now that is wrong, and what they should do in the future that is right. In particular, they have said little that is useful about how technology can cure our biggest problem---the large number of impoverished students who fail to learn to read, write and do math proficiently. If Cator can come up with a solution to that, I will shed my doubts about her movement.

By Jay Mathews  | November 4, 2009; 12:38 PM ET
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Why do they pay Jay to blog when all he'll do is copy anything Fordham foundation prints?

Did you go to the DOE or Karen Cator for comment? Or did you just print accusations from a conservative blog that happens to love charters as much as you do?

I know blogs arent actually stories, but you'd think a reporter would reach out to get both sides of the story first.

Thanks for passing along Checker's conjecture.

Posted by: doctordowntown | November 4, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

I am a relatively new blogger, but have read many of the best of the genre and it appears it is okay, in some circumstances, to just post an item and your view of it, as long as you make clear that is all you are doing. In this post I made it clear I thought that the partnership was run by good people, and did not buy into the view that they were trying to corrupt the government. The item, clearly on one side of the issue, interested me enough to post it, and I thought others following the issue would like to see it and make up their own minds. I have made clear in everything I have written about 21st century skills that I like their enthusiasm, but need to see something concrete.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 5, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

If you review the Framework for 21st Century Learning created by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, I think you'll find that technology is only a small part of a much more comprehensive vision. More prominent seem to be themes such as global awareness, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, information literacy, effective communication and collaboration, and leadership skills - all attributes that will characterize an effective 21st Century learner and citizen. To portray the 21st Century skills movement as a blind push for more technology suggests unfamiliarity with the core principles of the movement.

Posted by: ktothero | November 5, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

I am a History teacher at an impoverished public high school in Buenos Aires outskirts, with no TV sets, no DVD players and no computers. My work is almost 19th.century style. It basically depends on blackboard, duster and chalk. That means 21st.century education cannot be pure technology. Vast percentages of mankind lack access to Internet. And, first of all, technology can't be everything in people's life.

Posted by: esvazquez | November 8, 2009 8:40 AM | Report abuse

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