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Mike Rose
Mike Rose is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and author of a number of books, including "The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker." His latest book is "Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education"...




 



 
 

The Questions Education Reformers Aren’t Asking

(Page 4)

Part Four: 21st Century Skills: Education’s New Cliché

In all the current talk about school reform, there is one phrase that you will hear in every proposal, whether it comes from the president or the local school board. That phrase is 21st century skills. Provide students with 21st century skills for a 21st century economy. The label is a powerful one, heralding a new era, high-tech and prosperous.

But like so much in education reform, an idea that has some merit can quickly get reduced to a cliché. In one document I read, the phrase 21st century skills was repeated 25 times in less than two pages. And once you make your way through the cant, the 21st-century-skills approach has some troubling implications for education.

What are these skills? There are a number of definitions and lists, some running up to nine pages. Here’s a summary drawn from the Southern Regional Education Board. Twenty-first century skills include the ability to use a range of electronic technologies to access, synthesize and apply information. The ability to think critically and creatively and evaluate the products of one’s thinking. The ability to communicate effectively and collaborate with others, particularly in diverse and multicultural settings.

The range of skills is admirable, as is the intention that they apply to all students—an equity imperative. But what’s new about them? They sound like the skills one would have gotten from a good 20th century education—or from a lot further back than that.

You’ll find discussion of evaluating evidence or communicating effectively in Aristotle. The exception would be the emphasis on electronic media, but even here the underlying competencies—evaluating sources, synthesizing information—are good old-fashioned ones. 

Why begrudge the 21st-century-skills advocates their use of the politically effective mantle of newness?

The characterization of these skills as new implies that they haven’t been taught before. And this characterization plays into the inaccurate claim—popular in some conservative reform circles—that America’s schools have failed on a grand scale. This dangerous claim keeps us from drawing on what we already do well, and creates a false separation between one educational era and another. The rhetoric of the new plays into our easy dichotomizing of “old is bad / new is good” and our fetish for the next big thing—the examination of which ought to be a 21st century skill.

Of broader concern is the philosophy of education embodied in this reform.

As extensive as some of the lists of 21st century skills are, there are topics you won’t find: aesthetics, intellectual play, imagination, the pleasure of a subject, wonder. The focus of the lists—even when creativity is mentioned—is overwhelmingly on utility and workplace productivity. 

The irony is that a rich engagement with the subjects that are central to this skills-based reform—mathematics, science, electronic technology—involves for many young enthusiasts (not to mention experts) these same imaginative and aesthetic qualities. But the utilitarian concentration of the lists on production precludes these less tangible, but intellectually important, aspects of a good education.

The 21st-century-skills philosophy of education is an economic one. The primary goal is to create efficient and effective workers. Twenty-first century skills for the 21st century organization man and woman.

The economic motive has always figured in the spread of mass education in the United States, but recently it has predominated, edging out all the other reasons we send kids to school: civic, social, ethical, developmental. Even those 21st century skills that do deal with the civic, such as cross-cultural understanding, are expressed in terms of workplace effectiveness. 

Take, for example, these items drawn from the advocacy group Partnership for 21st Century Skills:

  • Understand, negotiate and balance diverse views and beliefs to reach workable solutions, particularly in multicultural environments.
  • Leverage social and cultural differences to create new ideas and increase both innovation and quality of work.

These are worthy, and we certainly could benefit from their spirit of cooperation. But the focus is very much on getting something done in the workplace. There are other important educational and civic goals related to interacting with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. For starters, there is knowledge of cultural practices—of the very notion of culture—along with the appreciation of our common humanity. There might be nothing immediately “leveraged” from such understanding, but it has great civic and personal value.

This is a promising time for education. Reform is a priority in a number of states, and the federal government is about to infuse an unprecedented amount of money into the schools. All this is happening at a time of great anxiety about the economy, so a focus on the workplace has understandable appeal. But we need to be careful to not let that anxiety narrow the purpose of education in America, regardless of what century we are in. 

Continued: Race to the Top of What? Education Is About More Than Jobs
Dig last updated on Mar. 19, 2010


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By doublestandards/glasshouses, March 20, 2010 at 5:29 pm Link to this comment
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gerard
I don’t know why the link to the book by Ivan Illich does not work.  The book was much discussed in the early 70’s and is still considered radical.  Education in America has always been in a state of crisis, it is hardly anything new.  “The crisis in education” is a phrase often used in DESCHOOLING SOCIETY, which was published 40 years ago.  Politicians and professional educators would have us believe that there was a golden age in public education and we somehow messed it up in the last few years, but the truth is that warehousing children in the name of education has always been a problem.  John Gatto refers to public schools as “factory schools” which are substitutes for education in the same way that factory farms are for agriculture.
Both Illich and Gatto draw a sharp distinction between “schooling” and “education” whereas most politicians, professional educators, and parents use these words interchangably.  For Illich and Gatto one of the main functions of schooling is to maintain social class distinctions and to provide our capitalist economic system with a docile, patriotic, unambitious, incurious, materialistic work force dedicated to the American ideals of shopping and consuming.
Gatto has written extensively on the history of schooling, exposing many of the myths that we have come to believe.  He is a former teacher in the Manhattan school system.  Illich was a philosopher, a catholic priest, and a marxist.
Most people when encountering their ideas about schooling for the first time want to know what they intend to replace schooling with and I suppose the best answer is that they would replace it with life.  Gatto likes to bring out his list of high school and college dropouts who have made major contributions to American life throughout our history - in art, science, music, literature, business, athletics… some of the names are surprising.  Most people probably believe that Bill Gates has an MBA but the fact is that he never attended college.  Abraham Lincoln recieved a total of one year of formal schooling in his life.  How did he learn to write so well? 

Gatto believes that there was a golden age in American life from the time of the founding of the nation up until the post civil war years before compulsory education was universally estabilished.  He explains this in WEAPONS OF MASS INSTRUCTION.

When he visited the US in the early 1800’s Tocqueville said that even in the then frontier regions of Kentucky and Tennesee Americans always had at least two books in thier homes - the King James Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare - and that they could quote at length from both.  How did they learn to read Shakespeare without schooling?  Today Shakespeare is being dumbed down for college students.

Gatto tells of a student teacher in the Minniapolis school system who learned recently that in 1882 fifth grades students in that city were required to read such major writers as Shakespeare, Dickens, Emerson, Thereau, Twain, and others.  Today fifth graders can’t handle the Harry Potter books without help.  Doesn’t this tell us that compulsory schooling has been in crisis for quite some time, that it is getting progressively worse, and that there must be a better way?  How much do you suppose Americans have collectively spent on schooling since 1882?

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By ThaddeusStevens, March 20, 2010 at 5:00 pm Link to this comment

AS one who did not supposedly do too well in the public education system I’d like to comment on the scenario. At age 60 I’m probably very well informed on a lot of subjects because I’ve always kept some of the early flames of childhood alive. This, despite the fact that financial ruin and industrialized farming have destroyed the small community where I drew most of my inspiration for learning from.

1. Learning is not all about books, writing reports and classroom processing. In a book that I have only seen on Amazon.com, ‘Handbook of Public Pedagogy: Education and Learning Beyond Schooling’, the authors explore that which happens in the public spaces where ideas are formed, processes put in place, procedures laid down, and events take place that shape our minds, bodies and lives; these phenomena also count as education. If the public discourse is heavily shaped by the dollar grubbing, prestige seeking, self centered minions of the top 500 corporations; that public discourse is still not owned by them. Try as they might to dominate it, we can still contribute and significantly shape the public mind via spaces like Truthdig.com.

2. For education to happen, for a mind to grow and remain open to new ideas, for children to successfully face the challenges of mastering increasing amounts of information, there must first be the formation of a team. Parents and their children, communities and their school boards, teachers and administrators must sit down together and agree that education matters. They must do more. They must agree that the love of scholastic things is important. I loved the smell of a newly sharpened pencil as a kid. I yearned to look into the new books the small public library had just purchased. I fell in love with calligraphy and drawing and music and art and philosophy and science and astronomy and history. As long we who are concerned about education can rekindle the love of scholarship in the minds of those around us, as long as we keep alive the faith that discussion of mind matters, then there is hope.

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By TheHaplessCapitalist, March 20, 2010 at 3:25 pm Link to this comment

I gained a sense from Rose’s piece that he paints a monolithic image of charter schools.  A charter school is in and of itself nothing more than a public entity which holds a contractual agreement with either the local, county or state school board of a particular place.  Using this increased autonomy, Charter schools tend to work along ‘multiple dimensions’ in order to increase academic excellence.  Each and every charter school is different in some way or another.  Many charter schools serve this country’s most underprivileged students.  Frankly, public education is doing just fine in predominately white, affluent communities—so let’s narrow the discussion here.  Many charters are in areas such as South Central and Harlem—where generation after generation of people have been cheated of an education—and they make important adjustments.  I think that quite often we lose sight of how fundamentally messed-up the educational environment is in some places.  For example, at a school in South Central, Los Angeles—where by 85% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch—the charter agency hired a catering company to begin providing more nutritious food.  Almost as a knee-jerk reaction, progressives immediately denounced this move as a form of privatization and a gross violation of public funds.  Sure, theoretically speaking, private catering companies should not be profiting from public funds.  However, when you have kids living in straight destitution—often coming to school with an empty stomach and then eating soda and chips from he vending machine—how can anyone expect them to focus and learn?  Needless to say, the traditional cafeteria food was anything but nutritious.  Another adjustment, which is an extremely important factor for many parents in South Central, is increased safety on campus.  In response, the charter school hired a private security team.  Needless to say, this too caused a knee-jerk reaction from many progressives—particularly those speaking from the other side of town.
You know, innovating the school system is the right thing.  Traditional district schools have grossly neglected many communities across the nation for too long.  All this lofty talk about bringing in a diverse and well-balanced curriculum is nice and all—but it doesn’t help the situation of little Joe, who has been pushed through the factory-like system all the way to high school, while still reading at a 3 grade level.  If focusing strictly on reading and math for a year will bring him up to par—and maybe even get him into college—then so be it!

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By Myronh, March 20, 2010 at 11:24 am Link to this comment

I was educated grades 1-8 in a rural one-room school-house. I graduated from a small High-school in 1952; the mix of country kids and town kids being about 50-50. Ironically, every year when another senior class graduated the honor students were predominately from the country schools. One could suggest that the work environment of the farm culture had much to do with this disparity; however, I believe it had more to do with the 8-grades in one-room environment. I was one of those honor students. I was reading library books that the 7th and 8th grade students were encouraged to read when I was in the 4th grade. I could hear and absorb all the information that was being taught to the upper class. This phenomena started in 1st grade and I am certain it was the same for all the other eventual honor students.

Today kids are herded into a classroom where it is a case of either absorb it or get moved to the next class where the chance of failure is almost certain. There is a better way, but it is not socially acceptable. The student is provided a workbook(s) that encompass all that grade is supposed to cover. That student is moved to the next workbook/class when they have learned a minimum of 90% of the information in that workbook. Some kids will move to the next class in 6-months, others may take 2-years. The end goal is to learn. We presently waste $millions on graduating kids that can’t even read, but were just passed on so they could be with there peers of the same age. They would be far better served to learn at a very young age that we are not all created equal and some will just have to work longer and harder to reach their goals.

This system would also provide the slower learners with good skills of the basic needs (reading, writing, arithmetic, and hard work). Those students can become the carpenters, machinists, masons, equipment operators, etc. that we so badly need, but are now often times hampered by a lack of the basic skills.

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By gerard, March 20, 2010 at 10:51 am Link to this comment

Doublestandards/Glasshouses:

Suggest that along with reference citations you give brief summary of main substance in a sentence or two. Many who read this site will not go to citations, so you have lost the moment to catch their attention and get the gist of your references across.

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, March 20, 2010 at 8:45 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

For Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich:
http://www.preservenet.com/Illich/theory/Deschooling/chap1.html

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, March 20, 2010 at 1:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Off the table:
http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Illich/Deschooling/chap1

http://www.johntaylorgatto.com

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By Mestizo Warrior, March 19, 2010 at 7:58 pm Link to this comment

A very wise, very successful and respected teacher once told a group of parents that ‘Learning should be fun, it should be interesting and above all it should be relevant to the needs of the child.” Unfortunatley our public school system is more concerned about the students passing standardized tests than in learning. Learning cannot be predetermined. Learning cannot be put into a one size fits all. Learning must be done in an atmosphere of respect. Children must feel comfortable with their teachers, not afraid of them.

Our inner city schools are in chaos for a variety of reasons: 1) Underfunded by intent. 2)Overcrowded by intent. Teachers cannot teach when they feel exploited, overworked and certainly not appreciated. Overcrowded classrooms are NOT conducive to learning for the children!
3) Public school systems must take into account that massive layoffs promote poverty, which in turn promotes crime, chaos and very unstable situations for children. Where these factors prevail, learning becomes very difficult for a child. 4) Scapegoating parents and/or teachers is NOT a solution. Public school systems, our state and federal leaders must respect the teaching profession as well as the students and parents! 5) Today’s youth is NOT stupid! They see where hundreds of thousands of American workers are on unemployment because our government fails to enact national policy to stop outsourcing of our jobs. With that in mind, what is the incentive to learn and get a diploma? 6) Privatization of our public schools has never been a solution, nor will it ever be such! The corporatists want to control our education system just as they control our healthcare, our government, etc.

President Obama and the Democratic Party had better wake up. Bashing teacher unions who helped get him into office will only erode much needed support for 2012. At this point in his administration Obama and the Democrats need support whereever they can get it, upon EARNING IT!

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By Elizabeth Cummings, March 19, 2010 at 6:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you for your essay.  After 40 years in education in Texas, it is time someone asked the appropriate questions.

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By Taoseno, March 19, 2010 at 3:48 pm Link to this comment

About once a decade I will read an essay or book that hits the nail on the head about education. This is certainly one. Having spent about the same amount of time in the profession as Mike Rose, I have experienced all the fads and quick-fixes he outlines here. (I even heard of a new charter school in my city that is going to experiment with “team teaching”!) Let’s see…. 1963? I’ve been at the cutting edge of “smaller schools” since it became a fad and have found, as Dr. Rose did, that it is often mediocre teaching in a more intimate setting. One of the problems many charters are having is administrators thinking that the school is their personal business and drawing 2-3 times the salary of their counterparts in the school down the road.

The real question is… “What is the purpose of schooling in a democratic society”? If we believe, as most of our society does, that it is to generate more “thinking, feeling, productive workers”, then we have limited our possibilities for the future.

As one of my education mentors said in the 60’s, “the schools are the state’s and they do the state’s work”. If we leave decisions about education and schooling to businessmen, governors, and corporations-as we seem to have done- we will continue in the slide to irrelevance and mediocrity that we seem to be in.

Mike Rose has told us how it is and how it can be. Read it and weep.

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By uncadon, March 19, 2010 at 3:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Insightful articles with prescient commentaries.  But, they all overlook a serious consideration when one is thinking about the reasons for undertaking reform.
Ken Saltman books address the softly spoken dynamic of converting $600 billion a year spend on education in the U.S. into revenue for profit centers.
The 12.5% profit (off of every $1 of school revenue) that Mosaica charges to run a school is a telling motive.
The churning of charter operators to evade the test-based accountability outcomes pushes the public access to the truth ever-further into the future, and allows continuation of an experiement gone terribly wrong. 
Unless one understands that many of the billionaires who push “reform” do so for not so obvious economic motives.  When one looks at “All Children Matter”, a national PAC, one finds famous names that represent ultra-rich families like Walton, Devry, Huizenga, and Bush advocate charters and vouchers because they see education as a last frontier for developing a new profit center.
The Naomi Klein Shock Doctrine underscores the strategy for destruction of public education as we know it and replacing it with the two tier eudcational system that provides a thinking-man’s education to the kids of the elite, and shapes interests of the lower class for lesser occupations.

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By gerard, March 19, 2010 at 12:48 pm Link to this comment

Thanks, all!  Including thatgal99 and Rose.  From my experience, Rose’s detailed analysis is accurate and bears keeping in the front of the discussion.
  Thatgal99 hits directly on an important part of the curethe—broad, consistent and deeply sensitive parent participation at the community level to support local schols, not blame them. 
  I could go on and on because I am deeply concerned about the way education is being used as a political “football” and people expect some magic “fix”.  In such a situation, any ideological faction can come in and take over if parents are not watching or are too busy to care.
  I can’t relax on this subject because schools are vitally important to democracy. Most of us know what to do, but we don’t participate—just criticize from the sidelines and hope for the best.  That ain’t gonna get it this time.
  Public education is an endanered species in today’s corporate America and you’d better believe it. The opportunity to change schools for the better may not last much longer.
  Do you want your kids to grow up to be corporate proles?  That’s the present meaning of “excellence” and “race to the top” and “no child left behind” and “merit pay” and all the rest of the notions coming out of corporatocracy.
  Read Rose.  Read Jonathan Kozol. Observe for yourself what’s going on.

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By HereGoes, March 19, 2010 at 8:43 am Link to this comment

It is refreshing to read the ideas espoused here.  Having just returned from my local school/parent meeting, I am very disturbed by the immediate repercussions of the budget cuts and their affect on my Los Angeles community.  Teachers, administrators and parents are demoralized in this climate.  Classroom instruction of any value is threatened.  Please, if you read this article, you care - attend your local school meetings and find out how bad things really are.  Then, locate your community spirit - you know it exists - show up for our children.  Make your mark for change.  Our children are being educated to become worker drones and soldiers.  That’s obvious - the question is, what are we going to do about it?  (Hint: the answer does not reside in the Obama administration and their desire to carry out the mind-numbing testing paradigm.)

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By Harvey Solomon, March 19, 2010 at 8:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Public education is being destroyed because the elites have decided that, in the future, there will be no need for the vast majority of the unneeded to be able to read or write.
There will come a time when we will be bound to the corporations just as the serfs were bound to the land during the Middle Ages. We will not be educated because eduction is a threat to the coming New Order. 
The only “commoners” who will have access to books or their equivalent will be cooks. This will be necessary because the plutocrats will only want the best of meals.
We have already entered an era where ignorance is power. The future is a place where democracy is sure to wither and die.

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By Linda/RetiredTeacher, March 19, 2010 at 7:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Last month I read the book Loving Frank, a fictionalized biography of the mistress of Frank Lloyd Wright. I found this book so fascinating that I went on to read several other books about the famous architect. I learned a great deal about him and this learning took place almost totally independent of any other person, except perhaps the friends in my book club. No “teacher” was involved.

Of course, almost everyone participates in this type of learning, which is usually characterized as “informal” or “self-directed.”  Children spend much of their time doing it naturally, but for some reason this type of learning is almost totally ignored in our discussions of education.

My own sons learned much at home while engaged in activities that interested them. My older son, now a scientist, spent much of his free time “making stuff” and “playing” with his computer. My younger son, now an attorney, was always reading or debating with family and friends. My guess is that they learned just as much, maybe more, out of school than they did in school, especially in regard to critical factors such as discovery and finding pleasure in learning.

There is a mountain of research to show that this type of learning is modeled in the home. For this reason, the children of highly educated, bookish people will probably engage in activities that they see their parents doing, while the offspring of poorly educated people might spend most of their free time watching TV. This results in a huge loss of critical learning time.

This is the reason for the “achievement gap” and yet we keep focusing on schools alone. I wonder why.

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By progwoman, March 19, 2010 at 4:45 am Link to this comment

Wonderful ideas here. Rose is correct that we pay far too little respect to the hard-won experience of journeyman teachers.

Taxpayers ought to be enraged that we’ve wasted so much time on NCLB. As long as we judge students and their teachers by such arbitrary standards, we are kidding ourselves about “progress.”

I just spent several weeks inside a public school on the edge of an Indian reservation. Great principal. Small classes. Teachers with more patience and caring than I could previously have imagined. Yet many kids are struggling.

One teacher said to me that it’s all about poverty and that she knows many of the parents and some of the students see her as just some white woman spouting a lot of nonsense. It was humbling, but I think that as long as we look to schools to overcome all the inequity that our society creates, we’re bound to fail.

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By Ann Callaghan, March 19, 2010 at 4:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I work in public schools right outside Philadelphia. Children don’t learn when the curriculum is adult centered, and by that I mean you are not thinking about how children learn, you only create resistance because you are trying to shove adult ideas down children’s throats. I don’t understand why education is such a penal institution. I am in and out of classrooms all day, and teachers have to constantly force children to do what they don’t know how to do, sit in a desk all day and hold a pencil. There are no field trips, no enlightened talk about various topics, and rarely do they play games, and this is how they learn. If I ask them what their favorite things are they mention science experiments and field trips and spelling bees. Fun things that they rarely experience. Catch phrases and high level dictators will never open children’s minds to the information they WANT and NEED. Its not about teachers. It will never work because you are building resistence and creating education systems that are opposed to the ways children learn. What adult can learn when forced to sit for hours and listen to discussions about standards??? You expect children to??

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