Not new, just 21st century

“Has the P21 movement succeeded?” asks National Journal. Many experts weigh in.

According to Ken Kay and Paige Johnson, P21 never claimed “21st century skills” were new. (Then why, I wonder, do P21 publications abound with phrases such as “21st century skills,” “21st century learning,” “21st century context,” “21st century tools,” and “21st century assessments”? If P21 is not claiming these skills are new, why the insistent repetition of the epithet?)

Such obfuscation does not fool everyone. Jay Mathews writes that “the marketing of the concept has not been entirely honest or wise.” He further points to P21’s insistence that we adopt this agenda immediately and in full; this he calls an “all-at-once syndrome, a common failing of reform movements.”

I see a connection between the “21st century” epithet and the insistence on immediate, all-at-once adoption of the platform. It is easier to market something when presenting it as novel, belonging to the moment, essential to our times.

Here are some brief quotes from NJO—but go read them in full.

Andrew Rotherham: “When one scratches below the surface of the debate you quickly find non-trivial debates about content, knowledge, pedagogy, and the nature of teaching itself.”

Diane Ravitch: “Our children are not deficient in skills or in computer literacy; they know better than their parents how to use computers to access information. Unfortunately what they lack is the knowledge with which to evaluate the information they so easily access.”

Phil Cuon: “Today’s young people enter our schools as “digital natives”—students who embrace technology and can do so much more with it than we would ever think possible. I am convinced that the physiology behind their learning is much different than what my learning was due to the tactile, audio, and visual media that young people are exposed to from birth.”

Paige Johnson: “If others truly believe that this work is not important or that the issue is not a significant one – I ask that they please direct me to evidence that proves all of our students are critical thinkers, able to solve complex issues, financially literate, understand and respect diversity, and manage themselves and others while working in team situations. Show me the statistics that prove that any student can step forward and be a future leader.”

Lynne Munson: “We and other critics of P21 agree, and have stated repeatedly, that the skills P21 promotes are important. What we take issue with is P21’s unserious treatment of subject matter content.”

Common standards: Where's the content?

A draft of proposed common core state standards for high school students is available as a pdf. The English Language Arts and math standards are supposed to provide “sufficient guidance and clarity so that they are teachable, learnable and measurable.”

Dead on Arrival” writes Core Knowledge Blog, which was the first to provide the pdf link.

. . .  the ELA guidelines offer almost no specific content and little that would be of use to teachers in planning lessons – or parents in understanding what their child is expected to know.

. . . Framed as a series of benchmarks students must reach “to be college and career ready,” the draft enumerates standards such as the ability to “determine what text says explicitly and use evidence within text to infer what is implied by or follows logically from the text.”

. . . Educators hoping for guidance on what particular texts are expected to be taught, or how to get students to reach the bland and obvious standards will be disappointed. On specific “texts” the draft says merely:

The literary and informational texts chosen should be rich in content….This includes texts that have broad resonance and are referred to and quoted often, such as influential political documents, foundational literary works, and seminal historical and scientific texts.

Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. complains that the standards ignore content knowledge. “They assume that the ability to understand literary and informational language is chiefly a how-to skill, whereas it is chiefly a topic-dependent skill that varies with specific topic familiarity.”

For example, students might have excellent reading skills but be unable to understand the sample text on covalent bonds because they don’t understand the science references.

This has been a hurry-up effort, so I’m not surprised at the lack of specifics. But I do wonder whether it would be better to start with the most-respected standards — Massachusetts’ — rather than starting from scratch.

The standards are a first draft that can be revised and improved, writes Common Core’s Lynne Munson. She hopes for “clear guidance and examples of the kind of novels, non-fiction works, poems, and plays that students should read.”

One standard shall rule them all

Though 46 states and Washington, D.C. are backing the creation of common math and English standards, figuring out what all high school graduates should know is a challenge, reports Politics Daily. Experts are trying to meet an end-of-July deadline.

The goal is for students to be career and college ready, meaning that they could make a C or better in first-year college classes without having to take remedial courses. Expanded groups of experts will set standards for grades K-12 by the end of December.

Federal standards efforts went awry in the past.  This campaign was started by governors.

“What’s really changed is that it’s almost always now teachers who say, ‘When are we going to get over this nonsense that math in Mississippi is different?’ “from math in another state, says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has “pledged up to $350 million to help develop tests that would measure whether students are meeting the new standards.”

ACT and College Board experts are trying to develop fewer, clearer and higher standards than in most states. They’re looking at freshman course syllabi and exit surveys to determine what students need.

“They’re really looking for what students should be able to do to truly be ready for college,” says (Chris) Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the groups overseeing the process along with the National Governors’ Association and a Washington-based group called Achieve. “It means taking out some of the things that aren’t really important, including, he says, “whether or not kids should read Shakespeare. Most of the studies say Shakespeare is not critical.”

We’re going to dump Shakespeare? Lynne Munson of Common Core at the eagerness to “throw out possibly the brightest star of our literary heritage and replace it with … well, we don’t yet know.”

Of course, in a few years the loss will hardly be noticed, as someone wise once pointed out: “He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stolen, / Let him not know ‘t, and he’s not robb’d at all.” (Othello, Act III, scene 3)

Massachusetts’ standards are the best we’ve got, Munson argues. If common standards aren’t that rigorous, why bother?

Gadfly’s Mike Petrilli wants a broad liberal arts curriculum that goes beyond “the utilitarian and narrow drive toward college and work readiness,” which has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans.

While the right celebrates anti-intellectualism, “the left remains uncomfortable saying that there is a body of knowledge that all young people need to master in order to be prepared for life in our democracy.”

Before you know it, Shakespeare’s as dead as a royal Dane in the last act of Hamlet. History, being unessential for college or work, is history.

P21 in control

Partnership for 21st Century Skills would control “hundreds of millions in federal tax dollars” under Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s  21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act, warns Common Core’s Lynne Munson.

. . .  if P21 doesn’t sign off on a particular state’s approach to integrating 21st century skills into its standards, tests, etc., that state would be ineligible to apply for federal incentive funds.  And corporate donations supporting that state’s efforts to adopt 21st century skills would not be tax-deductible — in other words, they would cease to exist.

Why give a private group with a controversial set of priorities that kind of control over federal dollars?

Search, cut, paste

Fur is flying over a Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ talk to the National Education Association.  Though reporters were not invited, Lynne Munson wrote on Common Core that P21′s “Paige Kuni explained that in the ‘search cut and paste environment’ students . . . only need to know ‘enough of the most crucial information’.”

She didn’t say who decides when enough is enough or what P21 considers crucial. Is it enough earth science to know that the earth is round? Enough literature to have heard of Shakespeare? Enough history to know that we once fought a civil war because the North and South disagreed about something?

. . .  In their remarks, none of the panelists mentioned science, geography, foreign languages, history, literature, art, civics — the list goes on and on.

Kuni responded in a Flypaper comment.

. . . I believe that students absolutely need to be taught content in combination with instruction that leads to 21st century skills like critical thinking, innovation, and collaboration. I believe that by creating schools that adopt the approaches P21 supports, students will be able to make connections of how a changing form makes butterflies more successful in the ecosystem. That they can think critically about how life cycles connect to evolution. And that they could extrapolate to other topics such as how product lifecycles in business are the same or different from butterfly lifecycles in making companies successful. When they are 25 if they cannot recall the name of one-step in the lifecycle, it isn’t important as long as they possess the learning skills that allow them to access that information when they need it (search- cut- paste).

Eduwonk sees common ground — if P21 adherents get a lot more specific about how students are going to learn the content that’s essential to thinking critically or creatively.

Robert Pondiscio, who’s back and blogging, muses about resistance to “content.” Personally, I prefer “knowledge.”