Skills preparedness, equity must be part of 21st century education policy priorities

Despite near-universal consensus that No Child Left Behind is overdue for change, the path toward reauthorization remains uncertain.   What is certain, however, is that the global demand for high level thinking skills accelerates daily, and the U.S .must make serious changes to keep up.

To that end, the Learning Policy Institute and Jobs for the Future have invited policymakers, advocates, practitioners and business leaders to begin a dialogue on how we can create 21st century learning opportunities for all students, particularly those who have been underserved. The inaugural event will kick off this Friday morning at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.

{mosads}The challenges are immediate and acute. The top skills needed for jobs in 2020 are not following directions and counting change, but the abilities to make sense out of complex information and events, to think creatively to solve novel problems, to engage effectively in cross-cultural contexts, and to manage quantitative data in sophisticated ways.

People who do not get access to these skills will increasingly find themselves unable to join the workforce and participate effectively in society.  This has enormous implications for everyone, as our social contract cannot survive if all of the younger generation cannot gain productive employment, support themselves, and pay taxes to help support the health care and social security of our burgeoning seniors. 

Efforts have been underway to develop assessment systems that can support and evaluate student progress toward the new college and career-ready standards. These new standards and assessments may ultimately help raise achievement, but this fall’s release of data revealed an even wider chasm between the skills of disadvantaged students and their wealthier peers than was previously apparent.   

Simply put, focusing on new standards and tests will not be enough to close these gaps.  A wide range of structural inequalities contribute to ongoing learning and achievement gaps, and these must be addressed if we are to make serious progress.

As a result of unequal funding, Recession-provoked budget cuts, and the pressures of high-stakes testing, many schools serving high-needs students have slashed science, history, writing, research projects, and the arts, along with extracurriculars that engage students in experiential learning and critical thinking.  Many have focused intensely on preparation for standardized, multiple-choice tests, rather than a rich and engaging instruction that prepares students for the 21st century. 

If deeper learning remains unavailable to students of color, new immigrants, and children of low-income families, America will be unable to compete in the global economy and preserve the promise of the American dream.

Despite challenges, some schools have shown signs of success.  Such schools have several common characteristics: rigorous, project-based learning and performance-based assessments connected to the world beyond school; personalized supports offered by advisors and teachers who can meet students’ individual needs; and opportunities for teachers to collaborate and learn together.

Schools that serve English learners support and further develop students’ language and cross-cultural skills that are assets in today’s global economy.   Teachers balance high expectations for all students with sensitivity to individual real-life challenges, so that they can provide effective support based on their knowledge of each student. 

These schools have stronger academic outcomes, better attendance and student behavior, lower dropout rates, higher graduation rates, and higher rates of college matriculation than their peers.  Despite their successes, these schools are exceptions in the American educational landscape.  

So where do we go from here? When educators and lawmakers align policies with what they know about learning and when they adopt strategies to mitigate adverse conditions in impoverished communities, they significantly enhance the ability of schools to promote equity and deeper learning.  Three areas of policy are critical:

1. Adequate and flexible K-12 funding based on pupil needs, with incentives to develop new school designs that support deeper learning.

2. Educator standards that focus preparation programs on deeper learning, with meaningful collaboration time for teachers to transform practice together.

3. More supports and fewer constraints for instruction so that schools can innovate, using new systems of assessment and accountability that support deeper learning and are used to inform teaching, rather than punish students, teachers, or schools.

Regardless of what happens with No Child Left Behind, we need to work at the federal, state, and local levels on policies and practices to ensure that every student has access to an education focused on meaningful learning, taught by competent and caring educators who are able to attend to their needs, supported by adequate resources that provide the conditions for effective learning.

These are education goals we can all get behind. We look forward to beginning the discussion this Friday.

Darling-Hammond is Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emerita at Stanford University and president of the Learning Policy Institute. Gandara is research professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and a senior research fellow of the Learning Policy Institute.


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