MORE THAN 20 years after the publication of A Nation at Risk and half a decade into the new millennium, we seem to be in jeopardy again. Employers and university professors demand certain skills and modes of thinking appropriate for the challenges we face in the 21st century. But policy makers and school bureaucrats are increasingly reverting to an antiquated model of education. If we do not change course now, we will fail an entire generation of children and imperil the nation's future. Thankfully, visionary school leaders are beginning to confront this disconnect between 21st-century expectations and seemingly permanent 19th-century school values and practices.
There is a growing consensus among members of the corporate community, university professors, and informed educators regarding the skills needed for success in college and in the marketplace. According to the Business-Higher Education Forum, "today's high-performance job market requires graduates to be proficient in such cross-functional skills and attributes as leadership, teamwork, problem solving, and communication," as well as time management, self-management, adaptability, analytical thinking, and global consciousness. (1)
A study by 20 of America's most prestigious research universities identified these same proficiencies and skills as the ones students need not only to gain admission to college but to succeed there. (2) While the study proposes standards for the various academic disciplines, its introduction indicates the "proficiencies" these standards are meant to develop. Likewise, at the precollege level, educators have articulated locally and nationally a core body of knowledge--what we know students should know.
Regardless of the angle of vision, there are remarkable similarities in what experts see. In short, we do not lack clarity about what to teach; rather, we are mired in antiquated thinking about how to teach. More specifically, we need to understand what exercises and experiences best produce proficiency in the skills and attributes that all sides agree are critical. Moreover, legislative mandates (e.g., high-stakes testing) and a slavish allegiance to traditional teaching practices and to specific disciplines of study are diversions that prevent us from devoting serious attention to developing a more global mindset and helping our children acquire the knowledge and skill sets they will need to succeed.
A NEW FRAMEWORK FOR SCHOOLS IN THE 21ST CENTURY
All over the world, we see examples of schools that are determined to resolve the contradiction between the vision of high-quality education for the 21st century and the reality of current practices. Schools that have dared to experiment are experiencing profound success in redefining what to teach and how to teach. That commitment itself is a 21st-century attitude.
How can you recognize a great 21st-century school? Schools for the 21st century will expect proficiency, fluency, multicultural literacy, and high-quality performance by students in a variety of areas. These four hallmarks of a successful school will influence how the school organizes itself, its instructional program, and its assessment system. Students will be promoted according to how well they meet expectations in these areas. Samples of each student's achievements in these four areas will be captured in his or her digital portfolio and will mark progress points at successive stages of learning in a way that does not mean instituting standards of mediocrity that all students are forced to adhere to.
Hallmark 1: proficiency. The first hallmark of a successful school for the 21st century will be the proficiency curriculum. In the words of assessment expert Grant Wiggins, a proficiency curriculum will be "backward designed" so that preferred outcomes dictate program and assessment. A student who is well educated for the 21st century will be technically proficient in
* literacy (including reading with comprehension, writing with accuracy and cogency, and speaking in public with confidence and persuasiveness);
* numeracy (mathematics skills and reasoning at advanced levels);
* empiricism (the scientific method, as applied in scientific inquiry); and
* technology (including such tools as computers, digital imaging, laser operations, and robotics). …