Kudos to the editor of Time Magazine and authors Claudia Wallis and Sonja Steptoe for their December cover story: “How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century.” (Note that you don’t have to pay to view/read the full article: If you aren’t already a Time magazine subscriber, you can opt to view a short web advertisement and then read the article. This is a VERY clever and effective marketing technique that still supports open content.) The article is about school reform, one that is near and dear to my heart and mind:

This is a story about the big public conversation the nation is not having about education, the one that will ultimately determine not merely whether some fraction of our children get “left behind” but also whether an entire generation of kids will fail to make the grade in the global economy because they can’t think their way through abstract problems, work in teams, distinguish good information from bad or speak a language other than English.

It references the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which published recommendations on December 14, 2006 for revamping the US educational system. I cringe at the fact that the commission’s report is not free as a free PDF download, however. It appears prospective readers must pony up $20 to buy the report. :-( Come on folks! This is the 21st century! If you want to be relevant, you need to give away digital copies of your ideas! If you want to charge for analog print copies that is fine and economically sensible, but please don’t ignore the ethic of open digital content. I certainly want to read this report, but am reluctant to pay for it. One way or another, I’m sure I’ll read this at some point in the weeks ahead. (Maybe I’ll borrow a copy from a friend.)

One of the slogans of the report appears to be: “America’s Choice: high skills or low wages!” This line of thinking is almost certainly a result of Tom Friedman’s “The World Is Flat,” and it is good see real proposals advanced that address many of the issues Friedman raises. The question is, WHAT SPECIFIC PROPOSALS are being advanced here? I am also very curious about how “fear-driven” these proposals and this message is. I’m reminded of my post from May, “Just Say No To Fear” and my April post “Bill and Melinda are Terrified.” In the educational reform debate, we must be motivated and driven by much more than fear. Change naturally invites fear, however, so the issue is not whether or not fear will be a part of the dialog– but rather HOW fear will be framed and addressed.

According to the Time magazine article, there is some consensus among the report’s authors, which sounds similar to the themes I address in my educational technology workshops. (The name of my wiki curriculum site is “teach digital,” after all.)

While that report includes some controversial proposals, there is nonetheless a remarkable consensus among educators and business and policy leaders on one key conclusion: we need to bring what we teach and how we teach into the 21st century.

I completely agree with the following statement from the Time article, which is paraphrased from the New Commission’s report:

Right now we’re aiming too low. Competency in reading and math–the focus of so much No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing–is the meager minimum. Scientific and technical skills are, likewise, utterly necessary but insufficient. Today’s economy demands not only a high-level competence in the traditional academic disciplines but also what might be called 21st century skills.

Our response to these ideas should NOT be more of the same, however: More standards, more testing, bigger sticks with sharper nails to scare and threaten students and teachers alike even further in a high-stakes educational environment. As I wrote back in June in the post, “Thoughts on school reform:”

The disconnect is that we see business leaders and others calling for 21st century literacy skills, that not only include technology skills but also “messier” skills more difficult to assess, like ability to solve problems, work on a team, lead a group to analyze and propose different solutions to a complex problem, communicate with different media modalities, collaborate with a diverse team dispersed over space and time, etc.

We also need to acknowledge and address issues of POVERTY, which is something else I mentioned in that post. Messy assessment instead of flogging with the standards. Are these themes the commission and our leaders will focus on in the months ahead? I hope so.

I’m glad to read the report (and this Time article) is focusing on issues of creativity and innovation:

Thinking outside the box. Jobs in the new economy–the ones that won’t get outsourced or automated–“put an enormous premium on creative and innovative skills, seeing patterns where other people see only chaos,” says Marc Tucker, an author of the skills-commission report and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Traditionally that’s been an American strength, but schools have become less daring in the back-to-basics climate of NCLB.

Readers of this report need to beyond thinking “Tom Friedman and The World is Flat.” They also need to think “Dan Pink” and creativity / innovation.

We have to become more multi-disciplinary. Does this sound familiar? (It’s from the Time article:)

Kids also must learn to think across disciplines, since that’s where most new breakthroughs are made. It’s interdisciplinary combinations–design and technology, mathematics and art–“that produce YouTube and Google,” says Thomas Friedman, the best-selling author of The World Is Flat.

Sounds a lot like my post from yesterday, “Idea cross-pollination and inspiring scientists.” There appears to be a lot to like in this Time article and perhaps in the New Commission report on educational reform. (I’ll postpone giving a full endorsement to the report, however, till I’ve taken time to read it.)

What about this quotation from the Time article?

In an age of overflowing information and proliferating media, kids need to rapidly process what’s coming at them and distinguish between what’s reliable and what isn’t. “It’s important that students know how to manage it, interpret it, validate it, and how to act on it,” says Dell executive Karen Bruett, who serves on the board of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a group of corporate and education leaders focused on upgrading American education.

That sounds like Clarence Fisher in his K-12 Online Presentation, “Globally Literate,” that I reflected on in “Shining lights, finding nuggets, adding tools.” It’s not just about SEARCHING, it’s about FINDING and VALIDATING.

I’m wary of statements that call for MORE RIGOR and MORE TESTING, however, and unfortunately that may be exactly what the new commission is proposing:

The Skills commission will argue that it’s possible only if we add new depth and rigor to our curriculum and standardized exams, redeploy the dollars we spend on education, reshape the teaching force and reorganize who runs the schools.

We do NOT need more rigor. Instead, we need to “Reject Rigor: Embrace Differentiation, Flexibility, and High Expectations.” Can our national leaders understand and “get” this message? I hope so.


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