Policymakers and 21st Century Skills


What should education look like in the 21st century? There is a basic consensus about the knowledge and skills that are essential in the world today, but there must be a greater emphasis on developing an educational model that equips students with the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century. Schools must do a better job of preparing young people for the challenges and expectations of 21st century communities, workplaces and schools of higher education. Our nation's well-being throughout this century will be determined by how well we prepare our students today.

State policymakers have an opportunity — and an obligation — to move forward with a new direction for teaching and learning in the 21st century. All educational stakeholders must collaborate in creating a new vision for education, and policymakers have a pivotal role to play in this process. Development of good educational policy today is the key to creating future generations of successful students, citizens and workers.

Preparing for the Future

In 2002, eight companies and educational organizations came together to form the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a unique public-private collaboration of leading business, education and government groups. The Partnership believes that states can use the current convergence of the federal requirements and the nationwide public and private focus on education to craft visionary state educational policies. Such policies would integrate a suite of 21st century knowledge and skills into education.

A year ago, the Partnership released the report "Learning for the 21st Century: A Report and MILE (Milestones for Improving Learning and Education) Guide for 21st Century Skills," in which we articulated a compelling vision and common framework for education. Some states and districts have already begun the work of incorporating technology literacy into their K-12 educational requirements. Many districts have taken this work and used it to make significant changes in how their students learn and how their teachers teach. Their early actions are a great start toward acquiring 21st century skills, but we recognize the additional need for policymakers to create a framework and a climate that will nurture policies for these skills. Many policymakers are moving in the right direction, but the Partnership strongly believes that states need to develop more strategic and systemic approaches in order to prepare young people adequately for the future.

Moving to ICT Literacy

Perhaps the most important recommendation that policymakers must embrace is a new rigorous standard called Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Literacy. ICT Literacy, an international term, is a unique, important blend of learning and technology skills. The Partnership believes that there should be a higher standard than just technology literacy. This is because technology literacy is not sufficient to assure student success in the 21st century, and technology proficiency is too narrow a skill for the world today. Instead, students must be competent in ICT Literacy by being able to use 21st century tools and learning skills (e.g., information and communication skills, thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as interpersonal and self-directional skills) that will allow them to become independent learners in school and throughout their lives.

ICT Literacy is a higher hurdle than technology literacy, and the Partnership recommends that states incorporate this model of learning into their standards, particularly into the technology literacy standard. Policymakers must understand and embrace this ICT standard as the model for future educational policy. Incorporating 21st century skills into education will make learning as relevant and invigorating in school as it is in students' personal lives, where they already use the latest technologies to communicate, collaborate, work and learn. Many students already learn and process information differently from past generations — multitasking and using personal digital tools to interact and retrieve information at anytime, from anyplace.

Creating a Policy Framework

To help policymakers get started, the Partnership recently released "The Road to 21st Century Learning: A Policy-makers' Guide to 21st Century Skills." Within this report, there are five key recommendations:

1. Adopt state standards that incorporate 21st century tools and learning skills as part of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) eighth-grade technology requirement.

2. In addition to the technology literacy requirement, embed ICT Literacy into current standards, curricula and assessments for core subjects.

3. Create a state and local infrastructure that supports a 21st century education.

4. Provide professional development that is strategically aligned to support the goal of offering a 21st century education to all students.

5. Engage educators, employers, community members, parents and policymakers in an ongoing dialogue that provides recommendations and advice about 21st century education.

These recommendations are excellent starting points for policymakers to begin creating educational policies that include 21st century skills. As education leaders work with these new state and federal policies, it is the perfect time to set an agenda for 21st century skills. It is also a great time to set the tone in every state for the integration of these skills. Specifically, as state policymakers begin to craft NCLB, Title II, Section D — the eighth-grade technology literacy requirement — for their state, the Partnership advocates that states should embrace a broader definition of this requirement. The Partnership also encourages K-12 and higher education leadership to emphasize the importance of 21st century skills and to promote legislation that supports these issues.

Integrating ICT Literacy into Core Subjects

In addition to embedding ICT Literacy into the eighth-grade technology requirements, states must also embed ICT Literacy into current standards, curricula and assessments for core subjects. As states regularly update their standards, curricula and assessments, they must infuse existing standards for core academic subjects and assessments with the learning skills and 21st century tools, context and content that should be emphasized more in most schools today. Technological tools are not isolated from function and content in daily life, and they shouldn't be in educational settings either. This powerful combination of knowledge and 21st century skills will offer all students the opportunity for a more meaningful and relevant educational experience.

In particular, students should be using 21st century technologies and learning skills to learn the core subjects. In order to promote this integration, the Partnership has collaborated with major content-area groups to illustrate the intersection of core subjects and ICT Literacy. We have done landmark work through bringing together these groups, which has resulted in excellent models of ICT Literacy integration called ICT Literacy Maps.

By using ICT Literacy Maps for geography, math, science and English, educators will gain concrete examples of how ICT Literacy can be integrated into core subjects. These maps demonstrate quite vividly how students can integrate ICT Literacy into core subject areas by the fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grade levels. They also make it clear just how essential learning skills are to the teaching of core subjects, and how easily 21st century tools can be used to teach both core subjects and learning skills.


Today, we need a policy framework for 21st century skills. NCLB is a timely opportunity, and every core subject provides an excellent chance to integrate ICT Literacy and 21st century skills. Educators, including higher education leadership, policymakers, and corporate and civic leaders, must jointly and expeditiously articulate a broad vision for 21st century education because that will inevitably map our nation's path in the coming years.

States have a long way to go in integrating these skills into curriculum and instruction, and K-12 and higher education leaders must support them in these efforts. A recent Education Week report shows that all but six states include technology requirements in their state academic standards, but only three — New York, North Carolina and Utah — actually test student knowledge of technology to see if the instruction is having an impact.

Most states have not yet systematically integrated ICT Literacy into education. While in some places, a lack of technology access still remains a barrier to 21st century learning. Policymakers can lead the way by making a concerted, comprehensive commitment, as well as by taking action toward the integration of 21st century skills and ICT Literacy into state standards, assessments and policies.

Online Resources

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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