Survival of the Skilled

July 1, 2007

Once novelties in American professional sports, players from Japan, Germany, Italy, Korea, Brazil, Argentina and China now star, vying with American talent for more than just the last seat on the bench - everything from large contracts and product endorsements to championships and awards. Competition has gone global. A decade ago, talent had a ZIP code. No longer. Today, you need a country code to reach the talent. But athletes are only the tip of a massive iceberg.

The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce notes in its 2007 report "Tough Choices or Tough Times," "A swiftly rising number of American workers at every skill level are in direct competition with workers in every corner of the globe." With the advent of international assessments, such as Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), our students are also facing greater competition with their peers. Thus far, U.S. students place in the middle to bottom half of developed countries in reading, mathematics and problem solving on these assessments. To be fair, these results represent one measure and may not give a complete picture of where U.S. students stand in relation to their international peers. Nevertheless, these international assessments are influential, casting doubt on the quality of our educational system at a time when we are already engaged in deep reflection on our educational mission and practices.

Competition with their international counterparts is only part of our students' dilemma. They also face a business environment driven by productivity and profitability, where the elimination of jobs through automation has pushed technology deeper into all industries, creating everything from electronic stock exchanges to wireless highway toll systems. If a job can be automated, it will. Jobs and careers involving routine cognitive, routine manual and non-routine manual tasks have experienced a precipitously decline, a point driven home by Levy and Murnane in "The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Labor Market." They identify two categories where job growth has occurred: expert thinking (ranging from doctors to chefs) and complex communication (management to teaching). In other words, skilled to highly skilled labor.

  • In 1950, skilled jobs composed 20 percent of the U.S. job market
  • In 2000, 85 percent of all U.S. jobs required skilled workers (Source: U.S. Department of Education (2000). Web-Based Education Commission)

The 21st-Century-Skills Divide
Despite an intense focus on accountability and standards in every state, there's ample evidence to suggest that American students don't have the skills necessary to meet the demands of the digital future. Business leaders, such as Microsoft's Bill Gates, Michael Dell of Dell Computers and John Chambers of Cisco, are speaking out on the need to ensure America's continued competitiveness in the new global economy. Gates recently teamed with fellow philanthropist Eli Broad to pour a staggering $60 million into an election-year campaign to raise education's profile in the political debate and national consciousness.

Specifically, employers are concerned about the lack of "applied skills" of those entering the workforce, a finding put forth by the 2006 report, "Are They Really Ready to Work?" A recent ACT report identified state standards as a major contributor to the gap between what U.S. high schools are teaching and what colleges want incoming freshman to know. Current standards "are trying to cover too much ground," says Cynthia Schmeiser, ACT president and COO. "As a result, key academic skills needed for success in college get short shrift."

While core content mastery - math, science and reading, in particular - has received considerable attention in accountability and standards, the skill set business leaders see as crucial to post-secondary and workplace success - critical thinking, adaptability, interpersonal communications, global awareness and media literacy, among others - have been pushed to the periphery. Making these skills a priority has fallen largely on the shoulders of forward-thinking corporations and consortia like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills to champion. These groups, particularly the Partnership, have taken the initiative and helped define both a vision and framework for understanding the need for 21st century skills and for approaching their integration into our schools.

Just what do we mean by 21st-century skills? Persuasive communications, problem solving and civic awareness are not new skills; however, the landscape for how and where those skills are applied has vastly changed. Traditionally, students built arguments through words. They now have images, sounds and animation also at their disposal. Once limited to the local library and perhaps a home copy of an encyclopedia, students can now access the vast digital archives of our nation's great libraries and cultural institutions for their research as well as a rising tide of information on the Web. In the era of text messaging, MySpace and youth media, young people have far more opportunities to express themselves, but such expression carries substantial risks from predators to poor choices that tarnish their own reputations or lead to costly financial mistakes.

Whether navigating their world today or preparing for their careers tomorrow, students require more than an understanding of facts and figures. Through its work over the past decade, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has identified a number of additional skills and interdisciplinary themes that are critical to preparing our students for the digital future.

Learning and innovation skills: Lifetime employment at one company is a thing of the past. Today's young people must be prepared to hold 10-15 jobs within their lifetime. Subject matter mastery is still vital, but having the flexibility and adaptability to apply knowledge gained across different domains is now the norm. Students need opportunities to engage in project-based learning challenges that require them to think across disciplines, such as math, science and art, and apply critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. They also need group design projects that stretch their communication and collaboration skills in carrying out teamwork and presenting a culminating design model.

Information and media literacy: Digital media - video, Web, audio, electronic documents and presentations - have transcended print as the dominant means of information delivery, conveying far more information than any textbook. But the multiple streams and higher throughput do not necessarily equal better quality. The ability to manipulate, the mixing of opinion with fact and the dilution of news gathering have also grown. Preparing students to tap into the new information streams means supporting them in interpreting, evaluating and communicating the data they uncover. Students need to learn how to use different media forms and communication tools correctly to better conduct research and to organize and communicate their findings appropriately.

Life skills: Knowledge workers are being asked to contribute more extensively to organizations, in terms of generating ideas, working collaboratively with teams, handling complex assignments and mastering new skills. Meanwhile at home, the same technologies that afford modern conveniences, such as online banking and shopping, also contribute to the annoyances of spam, fraud and greater personal risks and responsibilities. Students must develop the life skills necessary to thrive in the workplace and be productive and safe at home, such as leadership, ethics, accountability, adaptability, personal productivity, personal responsibility, people skills, self direction and social responsibility.

Global awareness: Many employers see understanding global issues and the complex relationships between nations as a critical attribute of prospective employees, especially as more and more business moves back and forth across continents. Students need exposure to and the ability to learn from and work collaboratively with individuals from diverse cultures, religions and lifestyles. The skills necessary to communicate across such diversity include respecting other nations and cultures, understanding a foreign language and engaging in open dialogue in collaborative projects. Not only do foreign-language skills raise global awareness but they introduce students to life skills needed to succeed in the 21st century. In a foreign-language environment, students must learn to be flexible and adapt to different roles, as well as develop social and cross-cultural skills. Financial and entrepreneurial literacy: As the burden of insurance, retirement and financial planning shifts to employees and as technology makes bill paying, day trading, fraud and identity theft more accessible, the ability to navigate complex financial systems becomes more acute. Students need to develop fluency in financial literacy, understand the role of the economy in society and know how to make appropriate personal economic choices. Students with financial acumen and entrepreneurial skills can greatly increase workplace productivity and their career options.

Health and wellness awareness: Employers are trimming healthcare benefits or moving to economic models that encourage workers to manage their own wellness needs. Meanwhile the costs of health care are escalating, as are the risks of epidemics and communicable diseases. Students need to understand the risks they face as well as the benefits and components of a healthy lifestyle. Civic literacy: The Internet has made public information more accessible and has become the bullhorn of myriad people who share their perspectives through a growing stream of communications channels. Navigating the glut of information, making sense of all these sources and developing an informed perspective is more complicated than ever. To participate effectively in civic life, students will benefit from knowing how to stay informed about issues, governmental processes and their rights. It's imperative that students are empowered to recognize their rights and obligations as citizens at local, state, national and global levels, while understanding the local and global implications of civic decisions.

The School Counselor's Role
School counselors, teachers and administrators need to understand that to succeed in the 21st century, all students will need to perform to high standards, acquire mastery of core subject material and gain the cognitive and social skills enabling them to deal with the complex problems of our age. Coping with that complexity will require deep conceptual understanding as well as fluency in basic literacies of reading, mathematics and technology use.

Facts alone don't constitute knowledge.

Borrowing from our work with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, we offer the following set of recommendations for teaching and learning, assessment and professional development.

1. Teaching and learning standards that address content knowledge and its application:

  • Promote an active view of learning where students draw upon core subject as well as life, learning and information skills to seek answers to meaningful problems.
  • Look beyond narrow disciplinary categories to interdisciplinary themes that cross core subjects. Meaningful problems in today's world are usually complex and boundary-spanning.
  • Engage students with the real-world data, tools and experts they will encounter in college, on the job and in life. Students learn well when working beside an expert whose opinion matters to them.

2. Performance-based assessments that allow for multiple measures of mastery and yield actionable data:

  • Create opportunities for students to demonstrate their mastery of concepts and ideas in ways not captured on a standardized measure through technology-enhanced, classroom and performance-based assessments.
  • Make thinking visible by revealing the kinds of conceptual strategies a student uses to solve a problem.
  • Identify the background knowledge a student uses to solve a 21st-century, real-world problem.
  • Are largely performance-based, calling upon students to use 21st century skills.
  • Generate data that are actionable by yielding information that can be used to directly inform instructional practices.
  • Aim to build capacity - both teachers' and students'.
  • Reflect an understanding of learning as multidimensional, integrated and revealed in performance over time.

3. Professional development that takes advantage of rich media:

  • Illustrates how a deeper understanding of subject matter can be achieved through problem-solving, critical thinking and other 21st-century skills.
  • Cultivates school counselors' and teachers' ability to identify students' particular learning styles and intelligences.
  • Help school counselors and teachers develop their abilities to use various strategies (such as formative assessments) to reach different students as well as create environments that support differentiated teaching and learning.
  • Provide models of instruction that show what 21st-century skills look like in real classrooms.
  • When appropriate, takes advantage of 21st-century tools, such as real-world, rich-media examples, video clips, interactives, simulations based on historical or real-time data sources, acoustically and visually rich primary sources and digital repositories, to support 21st-century skills.
  • Encourage knowledge sharing among communities of practitioners, using face-to-face, virtual and hybrid exchanges.

The silver lining to the 21st-century challenges that educators face is that our education system holds enormous potential and can reverse the trends and resume a leadership position by refocusing on 21st-century skills. The same global marketplace that brings international players to our shores is opening new doors for our youth in other lands. The key question is whether they are prepared to embrace these new opportunities and thrive in a "flat" world. Do they have the skills to survive?

Reprinted with the permission of School Counselor magazine.


Chad Fasca
Margaret Honey