The 21st Century Learning Imperative


For Steven L. Paine, state superintendent of schools for West Virginia, 21st century learning is not an option; it's a necessity for students who must go out and compete on a global level. "Students deserve it. The world demands it," he told an audience at the FETC Virtual Conference & Expo, held Thursday. And to make it happen, he said, changes need to be made in the way we assess students and in the way we develop teachers.

Moving to a 21st Century Framework
In his presentation, Paine highlighted West Virginia's efforts to push a 21st century learning agenda. The state joined the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and adopted Framework for 21st Century Learning back in 2005 in an effort to compensate for a decline in student achievement the state experienced between 2001 and 2005 under NCLB.

"In West Virginia, we were one of three states that received full approval with regard to its assessment and accountability system. Our standards, our assessments met the gold standard, so to speak, at the U.S. Department of Education. And I can remember the call that came in from [former Education] Secretary Paige at the time that said, 'Congratulations, your system has met the mustard,' at which time I said, 'Thank you Mr. Secretary.' At first glance our numbers under NCLB looked pretty good.... We have improved performance [in] every single student subgroup in both content areas at every grade level."

So everything looked good, he said, "until my second week on the job, when the NAEP scores came out...." West Virginia's NAEP (or National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores declined during what Paine referred to as "the NCLB years."

"I absolutely am convinced and have evidence of the fact that in 2005, after NCLB standards and assessments had a chance to kick in, after teachers had adjusted the content they were teaching, we low-balled our standards in West Virginia--inadvertently and by well intentioned people--but it happened," he said. "Our NAEP scores went down. And that was very troubling when you're two weeks into the work."

He said that, following this revelation, the state ordered a curriculum audit and an analysis of assessments, which found that assessments and rigor of the curriculum were inadequate.

So education leaders in the state looked at national and global data and explored some of the strategies and tactics used in countries that have surpassed or are gaining on the United States in terms of academic achievement. The United States, in short, is slipping and has been since the 1970s. And this effect is becoming more pronounced as the technology playing field levels around the world.

"Technology is the great equalizer. It really is providing a balance between the developed nations and those that are not as well developed. And clearly the lines between first world and third world ... are going to become even more blurred than they are today, with technology as that tremendous equalizer, which has tremendous implication for us in the United States and also has tremendous implication for us in West Virginia.

All of this, Paine said, led to the conclusion that West Virginia needed to adopt policies that would improve student outcomes and help prepare students for the new realities of the 21st century. And part of that was joining with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a coalition of business and education groups focused on the integration of technology into education. The group provides the Framework for 21st Century Learning, which is a roadmap for education centered around technology and skills-focused learning. It also provides resources focused on providing information and tools for educators for boosting 21st century learning in K-12 through its Route 21 site.

The Response: Global21
West Virginia's implementation of the 21st Century Framework for Learning, dubbed "Global21," has the goal of growing the "seeds of greatness in every child, teaching them to their fullest potential so that they may be globally intelligent and resilient in our 21st century world." To this end, Global21 incorporates two components: one focusing on student learning in core subjects (which, in West Virginia, include the arts, math, science, language arts, and social studies) and one focusing on teaching and assessment.

"We clearly want to make sure that our kids increase their cognitive knowledge, their learning ability, the skills that they acquire in those content areas. And then secondly we are focused in integrating some of the skills within the Framework for 21st Century Learning into our core subject content, standards, and objectives. And this is our approach. We're not in a rush to do this. No Child Left Behind took us down a path where we're all on timelines to make progress. We're finding that that's not the best way to make progress. Yes, there has to be accountability, but for every ounce of accountability there ought to be two ounces of capacity building."

West Virginia's framework aims to integrate core subject content with, as Paine described it, 21st century skills, content, context, assessment, and technology. Revisions to the curriculum were implemented in fall 2008 not just to include 21st century skills, but to align to NAEP frameworks and to the ACT curriculum framework and to prepare students for PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment). The state is also adopting standards to help ready students for higher education and the workplace. (Further information on this can be found here.)

On the teaching front, Paine indicated that supporting teachers is critical to the success of the new strategy in terms of providing professional development, providing adequate technology tools and infrastructure, and developing professional learning communities and collaborative teams, both online and face to face.

Essentially, he said, we need to "move from isolation to collaboration" in teaching--matching younger teachers with veteran teachers, bringing back retirees, establishing informal "job-embedded" professional development, collaborating in learning teams, and, importantly, creating spaces where teachers can come to reflect on their practices, plan student interventions, and analyze achievement data.

"If you give teachers time, and if you give them resources to get the job done," he said, "they will never disappoint you. In fact, they will exceed your expectations every time. But it's all about creating those structures where they can get together to do this work...."

A critical component of this is assessment, Paine said--both assessments of learning (summative) and assessments for learning (formative)--and involving teachers fundamentally in analysis of the data tat comes out of these assessments. "Basically we just need to simply develop assessment-literate teachers and educators for the future...."

All of these components will help produce greater learning outcomes for students and help them compete on a global scale.

He concluded: "As we move forward with Global21, we do so because, as our slogan says, students deserve it. The world demands it. We have no other choices but to move forward in this direction in a very aggressive manner in the future without compromise, while maintaining a very focused effort and then being savvy all the while to take care of our kids and the people delivering services to our kids. ...[K]ids must come first. But as you move your systems forward at the district and school level and at the state level, we also have to be savvy enough to understand that our people who work within the system come in a very close second. I think with that combination and that balance and that focused effort on our people and kids within the parameters of Global21, will lead to our success in the future. I think we're probably about two to three years from seeing real student achievement results, as we've just implemented this world-class benchmark curriculum this year. And I'm optimistic ... that we have absolutely taken on the right venture for our kids for their future as we strive to allow our kids to figure out how to be globally intelligent and resilient in this 21st century."

An archived version of the complete presentation by Steven L. Paine can be viewed at the FETC Virtual Conference & Expo by registering here.

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 .