Report: Sweeping Education Reform Needed To Bolster American Competitiveness


A revamped 21st century education system is central to American economic competitiveness. Domestic and international economies have shifted. New skills are needed for the workforce. And there are significant achievement gaps to be overcome in order for the United States to be able to compete with the rest of the world. This according to a new report released today that calls on federal, state, and local policymakers to make a concerted effort to refocus K-12 education on 21st century skills.

"The nation needs to do a much better job teaching and measuring advanced, 21st century skills that are the indispensable currency for participation, achievement and competitiveness in the global economy," according to the new report, titled 21st Century Skills, Education & Competitiveness, which was sponsored by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the Ford Motor Company Fund, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, and the National Education Association.

Among other things, it cites radical changes in the economy of the United States, along with the demand for a shifted skill set required for the new economy, as the major factors indicating a need for immediate action. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, there's been a dramatic shift away from manufacturing toward the service sector. Between 1995 and 2005, 3 million manufacturing jobs were lost, while 17 million service sector jobs were created. And as of 1999, the second-largest segment of the American labor force, according to another report, was in information services, at 41 percent.

And this shift has created a demand for a workforce with a different set of skills from what was required just a few decades ago. And the burden is on K-12 schools to develop these skills in today's students. But, at the same time, there are significant hurdles to be overcome. These include a continued gap in achievement between students who belong to various ethnic and economic groups, as well as an achievement gap between the overall student population in the United States and the student populations of other countries, as measured in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), in particular in the category of problem-solving or cognitive skills.

"The nation needs to do a much better job teaching and measuring advanced, 21st century skills that are the indispensable currency for participation, achievement and competitiveness in the global economy," the report stated. "Beyond the assessment of reading, mathematics and science, the United States does not assess other essential skills that are in demand in the 21st century. All Americans, not just an elite few, need 21st century skills that will increase their marketability, employability and readiness for citizenship...."

Among those critical skills cited by the 21st Century Skills, Education & Competitiveness report are:

  • Critical thinking;
  • Creativity and entrepreneurial thinking;
  • Communication and collaboration; and
  • Solving complex, multidisciplinary, open-ended problems.

"The challenges workers face don't come in a multiple-choice format and typically don't have a single right answer," the report said.

In terms of the implications for federal policy, the report made several recommendations, including:

  • The creation of a senior advisor to the President for 21st century skills and workforce development;
  • The creation of an "Office of 21st Century Skills" at the Departments of Education and Labor;
  • The establishment of a $2 billion research and development fund; and
  • Enactment of a national workforce development policy, a "systemic, preK--80 approach" in which "every aspect of the workforce pipeline is infused with the same set of 21st century skills."

It also made several recommendations for state and local policymakers, including collaboration with business to create a "21st century agenda," integrating 21st century skills into graduation requirements, infusing teacher preparation and development with 21st century skills training, and appointing assistant superintendents for 21st century learning, among many other suggestions.

"This is a seminal moment in history for education and competitiveness," the report concluded. "The fundamental shifts in the economy demand bold and creative policies. Formalizing the connection between education and competitiveness with an agenda focused on 21st century skills--which are widely acknowledged and supported by voters, employers, educators, researchers and thought leaders--is the starting point."

Further information about the report can be found here. The entire report can be downloaded in PDF format here.

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About the author:David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at [email protected].

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at .