Curriculum-Based Reform :: An Eye on the Future


Employers say that US schools are not teaching students the skills they must have for the 21st-century workplace. What may be needed is a sweeping change in how we think about curriculum.

Curriculum-Based Reform : An Eye on the Future “To succeed in today’s workplace, young people need more thanbasic reading and math skills. They need substantial contentknowledge and information technology skills; advanced thinkingskills; flexibility to adapt to change; and interpersonal skills.”—J. Willard Marriott Jr., CEO of Marriott International

HE’S NOT THE ONLY ONE SAYING SO. Indeed, if Marriott and numerous members from the business sector whom I have spoken with are correct, then we are not teaching the right things in school to our students, at least not all the right things. Marriott’s quote comes from a report released last October titled “Are They Really Ready to Work?”, the result of a collaboration of four organizations led by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

The four companies polled several hundred employers, asking them to “articulate the skill sets that new entrants [into the workforce] need to succeed.” When employers were asked to rank nine basic skills (including reading comprehension, math, and science) and 11 applied skills (such as critical thinking) in order of their importance for success in the workplace, the few identi- fied as the most important for graduates from every level were: 1) professionalism/work ethic; 2) teamwork/collaboration; 3) oral communication; and 4) critical thinking/problem solving.

The report is not the first publication to point up the gap between the skills needed in the workplace and the skills students are being taught. In a 2005 survey, the American Diploma Project found that nearly 40 percent of high school grads feel unprepared for college or work, while a survey the same year from the National Association of Manufacturers showed that 84 percent of employers say K-12 schools are not doing a good job of readying students for the workplace. And then there are books such as The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman and A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink that question what schools are teaching.

The new emphasis on real-world skills is due to our evolution into a knowledge-based economic model, with a highly transient workforce. The Department of Labor projects that people will on average hold 10.2 jobs between the ages of 18 and 38; thus workers need to be able to transfer skills and knowledge from one area to another. As Mike Schmidt, director of education and community development for the Ford Motor Company Fund, says, “We don’t know what the jobs of the future will be. We need nimble thinkers and learners in the workplace.” Schmidt believes we must have rigorous academic standards in the core content areas, but that is not enough: “Academic rigor is only the price of entry,” he says.

According to Karen Bruett, director of K-12 business development for Dell, many technology companies have core competencies on which they base hiring and promotions, and those relate to such skills as critical thinking and problem solving. The pace of change in industry requires companies even as big as Dell to reinvent themselves, and they can only do that if they have versatile, mentally agile employees.

So how do we change our practices to ensure we are teaching all the right things? Curriculum standards are the place to start, and while none of the businesspeople I spoke with proposes having separate courses in innovation, problem solving, and the like, all believe that these skills could be expressly taught through project-based learning, where students learn subject matter, then apply that learning directly to a real-world problem. Bruett advises, “Don’t focus on the technology; focus on instruction and how the tools can be applied to gather and share information with a team trying to solve the problem.”

Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, speaking at the EduStat conference in June, conjured up a sample social studies lesson to illustrate the difference between what is traditionally taught and the application of 21st-century skills. Rather than teach a series of facts, we should approach the subject in a problem-based way, he says. For example: Divide students into teams, give each team a GPS and specifi- cations for a city park, then ask the students to pick the best site to place the park as well as articulate the rationale for their decision. Students can thereby use technology to gather data, analyze and synthesize the data, and make suggestions based on facts—just as you and I do in our jobs every day.

What may be needed is a fundamental shift in how we think about curriculum. The current thinking in the standards movement is that the state should define the what—the standards— and the schools and teachers should define the how—the instruction necessary to teach those standards. The skills that businesspeople are talking about are less content-oriented and more about process, demanding a different approach to teaching. Instruction may need to become a part of curriculum and content standards so that we are teaching the skills students need as they advance on to college and the workforce.

While we reform curriculum, we also need to reform our approach to accountability. Everyone understands the need for accountability, but no one is happy with the way it’s currently determined. “Business used to have one primary metric for success: profitability,” Kay says. “Now others, such as quality and customer service and satisfaction, also are important, and CEOs recognize the connections among quality, customer satisfaction, and long-term profitability.”

Likewise, we in education take the easy way to accountability— end-of-year, primarily multiple-choice assessments. Just as business developed additional metrics to augment their measurements of success, so too can education, with some leadership from states, a groundswell of demand from school districts, and a push from the business sector.

There are beacons of hope out there. New Technology High School in Napa, CA, measures students on eight different outcomes: content standards, collaboration, critical thinking, oral communication, written communication, career preparation, citizenship and ethics, and technological literacy. According to Bob Pearlman, director of strategic planning for the New Technology Foundation in Napa, the school has an online system that supports each of the eight skills, and most, if not all, lessons include evaluating how successfully students employ them.

Al Browne, the national program director for Verizon, with responsibility for education and technology, believes we don’t have time for gradual change. “Corporations need to scream, write, and talk about the need to change the curriculum,” he says. “The grassroots need to do the same, and we all need to work with policymakers to encourage them to put politics aside and make concrete changes.”

-Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editorial director of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.