The business of '21st-century skills'

As Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) becomes more influential, critics charge it’s a way for high-tech companies to influence schools, reports Education Week.

“The closer we look, the more P21’s unproven educational program appears to be just another mechanism for selling more stuff to schools,” Lynne Munson, the president and executive director of Common Core, a Washington group that advocates a stronger core curriculum, wrote in a recent blog item.

For Ken Kay, the president of P21, such criticism amounts to a “cheap shot” by those who don’t believe that the education system should be more responsive to business needs. . . . “All we’re trying to do is lay down a thoughtful set of design specs [for education].”

Business members of P21 become part of “a proactive process for creating a new vision of education,” Kay told Ed Week.

They have new networking opportunities and better access to federal policymakers and state leaders. Finally, they can access “early intelligence” about where the education system may be headed in order to help ensure that products and services align with that vision.

Recently, Karen Cator, a P21 board member and former Apple executive, was named head of education technology initiatives in the Education Department. But P21 isn’t pushing technology as the silver bullet, Kay says. It’s much broader.

Education historian Diane Ravitch, a Common Core trustee, thinks that P21 doesn’t know much about curriculum.

She scorns, for instance, its recently released “skill map” for 12th grade English that suggests having students reduce dialogue from Shakespeare to a series of text messages.

Kay says P21 is a catalyst, not a designer of standards, curriculum or tests. However, the group is starting a project to “devise assessment prototypes that measure 21st-century skills.”

My problem with P21 is not the business end of it. I’m dubious about the education part, which often seems fuzzy and faddish.

P21 has poor learning skills, writes Common Core’s Lynne Munson, complaining the group has dismissed sound advice on improving the program.

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  1. Teachers, let us defend the liberal arts from the encroachment of Silicon Valley values! Schools currently seem to have Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome with respect to this invasion (and others). More and more, technology is the tail that wags the dog. Our job is, number one, to create good, smart, well-rounded and interesting human beings, NOT to maximize gadget using time or to begin quasi-internships for Oracle at age 6! Don’t try to placate me with bromides about how technology can work hand-in-hand and enhance the subject matters. Happy talk! Everyday tech demands shoulder out subject demands. I install software when I could be thinking of great opening questions. I attend video-streaming workshops when I could be reading more about Islam’s influence on West Africa, or making more thoughtful comments on a student’s paper. Each new gadget entails more of my finite time getting siphoned off. It IS a zero sum game. And of course P21 doesn’t care: their aim is to maximize profits, not ensure the proper development of our citizens’ souls. Unfortunately, the “army” of the humanists seems to be a rag-tag, tiny, geriatric little band, utterly outclassed, outgunned and outnumbered by the tech-utopianists, corporate sales people (and sales people in disguise like Kay), and the legion of ignorant school board members who think that fancy pants high-tech surely must be all good. I ask you, where are the aggressive sales people for the humanities? I fear that they are going extinct.


  1. […] light of this post, note that Microsoft has joined the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, while Google has held […]