Don’t mess with Massachusetts

Beware of requiring soft, vague 21st century skills, such as “media literacy, critical thinking and working in groups,” editorializes the Boston Globe. The state school board is considering a proposal by a task force which concluded that “straight academic content is no longer enough” for student success. The Globe warns:

The 21st-century skills movement could return Massachusetts to an era of low academic standards.

Massachusetts’ “15-year track record of successful education reform” is at risk, write Charles D. Chieppo and James T. Gass in Education Next.

Despite the clear success of more than a decade of education reform in Massachusetts, Governor Patrick’s administration has turned its back on the very forces behind that success: it is wavering on standards, choice is under continual fire, and the board of education has been stripped of the independence that for 170 years was Horace Mann’s legacy and had allowed the board to implement reform with a singular focus on improving student achievement.

. . . Results released in September 2008 showed a sharp drop in MCAS pass rates and flat or declining scores in the elementary and middle school grades and in many urban districts.

Massachusetts probably has the best education system in the nation. Why mess it up?

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  1. Sounds a lot like Strickland’s New and Improved Education Plan for Ohio. Just how do the powers that be expect poor rural districts like mine- with one under-furnished computer lab for the entire high school of 350 kids- to be able to use “21st Century” skills, make wikis or write blogs and online discussions when the system is so slow and crashes so often, or assign homework that requires computer use when 1/3 of our families don’t have computers and Internet?
    Strickland promised during his campaign to find a solution to the funding problems that keep our poor districts poor. Yet the news is now that our district will get something like $500 more next year and a rich district like the ones in northwest Columbus will get millions more and they are already one of the richest districts in the state. There are times I just feel despair!

  2. Diana Senechal says:

    The Boston Globe editorial is right. Joanne Jacobs is right. Massachusetts, if you are reading this… don’t give up your great accomplishments. Steer clear of this “21st century skills” fad. Some of the principles, applied properly, may have merit, but the movement does not.

    I attended the February 24 panel discussion in D.C., hosted by Common Core, on the role of 21st century skills in the curriculum. Diane Ravitch, E. D. Hirsch, and Dan Willingham pointed out serious problems with the 21st century skills movement. Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, had little to say except that there was “common ground” between P21 and proponents of a solid curriculum. (I was not convinced by his words, to put it mildly.)

    In any curriculum there should be overlap of skills and knowledge. Of course students should learn to think critically, once they have something to think about. But take a look at P21’s documents (such as the “21st Century Skills Map” for English, and you see vague “outcomes” and cumbersome projects that dilute, distract from, and oversimplify subject matter. Huge emphasis on social skills and technology along with trivialization of literature. Some of their projects involve taking a story or poem and making an advertisement for it, or a claymation video, or a multimedia rendering… anything but the close study of literature itself, on its own terms.

    Claymation is fun and extraordinarily time-consuming. About a decade ago I took an animation class and made a very short claymation video. It took hours to make thirty seconds of animation. This should be a project for an art or animation class, not English class. Literature requires careful, thoughtful reading. These glitzy projects interfere.

  3. John Costello says:

    MA’s educational system is seriously dysfunctional. I say this as someone who survived it and still lives here. It survives because it is actually several systems combined, both the state system, the private schools, and the parochial school system. In the 80s it got very bad — it was a joke among store cashiers that teenage girls would bring an item to the register to ask how much it was, despite the sign above it on the floor saying “10 off marked price.”
    After MCAS math ability got better, but I have found myself working with recent high school graduates who have no idea of how senators are chosen and for how long, or who think that Lincoln was a democrat.

  4. Dennis Coxe says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but if teachers stopped assigning so many multimedia reports (a/k/a PowerPoint presentations) and started requiring more book reports, essays, and other persuasive writing and verbal presentations. And if those same teachers graded critically on the content then maybe “21st century skills” would be taken care of. And don’t get me started on “teamwork.” Human beings are hard-wired to work as teams when necessary.