Driving Question: What is really needed to prepare students as citizens and workers in the 21st Century?

In the midst of the many efforts to improve education in the early part of this century, there has been no real discussion about the goals of education in the 21st century or how best to prepare students for a rapidly changing job market and for active and informed citizenship.

None of the education reforms I’ve examined, challenge the nature of what is being taught. Whether they are charter schools or online courses or the Common Core, the academic content has been largely unchanged since the turn of the 20th century. The assumption of most adults seems to be that the only problem in education is how to ensure that all students get more of it. And yet, what matters most in getting and keeping a decent job today is not how much you know, but rather what you can do with what you know.

Wrong Headed Tests

When the Common Core was first being pushed by education leaders, promises were made about the creation of significantly improved standardized tests to accompany the higher academic standards. It was said that more critical thinking will be required as well as more writing. However, the two consortia developing the new tests have had to eliminate many performance tasks—where students apply what they’ve learned—in favor of the cheaper-to-grade multiple-choice test items.

Even so, state education leaders continue to worry that they will not be able to afford the new tests. So long as we insist on testing every student every year, instead of testing only a sample of students every few years, we will be unable to afford the kinds of assessments, like the College and Work Readiness Assessment, that measure the skills that matter most.

Wrong Headed Accountability

Another reform that was pushed out by the Department of Education as a part of Race to the Top was the requirement that states begin assessing teacher effectiveness on the basis of students’ standardized test scores. Thirty-five states currently use test scores as part of teacher evaluations.

Teachers used to be under a great deal of psychological pressure to raise test scores and teach to the test. Now the pressure is economic. They worry that they will lose their jobs if their students do not produce good test results. I believe that this “reform” will only serve to accelerate the trend of teaching to the tests and to ensure that whatever good qualities that may exist in the Common Core will be lost in an increasingly test-prep-centered curriculum. And because there are only Common Core standards for language arts and mathematics, the time given to teaching other subjects will continue to decline—especially in the arts.

While many business leaders continue to push for increased use of standardized tests for measuring student achievement and teacher effectiveness, I have discovered that no corporations make important hiring or promotion decisions on the basis of a standardized test score. Even Google, the outlier, has given up the practice.

Today, what corporations rely on is collective human judgment, informed by evidence. While we in education are increasingly data driven, many in the business world are more evidence based—meaning that they rely on a combination of quantitative data and qualitative evidence. If this is good enough for our best businesses, then why isn’t it good enough for our schools?

Questions About the Common Core

Finally, there is the question of whether the Common Core curriculum will result in students having work that is merely more difficult (and more frequently tested), or truly interesting to students. Will students be more actively engaged as learners with the new curriculum? I continue to worry about the impact of a test-prep curriculum on student motivation, as well as on teacher morale. A 2013 Gallup survey found that while eight in ten fifth graders report being engaged in school, the number drops to four in ten by high school. Brandon Busteed (2013), executive director of Gallup Education, writes:

The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure. There are several things that might help to explain why this is happening—ranging from our overzealous focus on standardized testing and curricula to our lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students—not to mention the lack of pathways for students who will not and do not want to go on to college.

Student motivation remains a critical—and largely ignored— issue in education. My friends at Expeditionary Learning—a network of schools around the United States that has now surpassed the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) in total number of students—focus on giving students work worth doing. In contrast to KIPP’s carrot-and-stick approach, Expeditionary Learning teachers strive to design inquiry lessons and projects that build on students’ interests, knowing that this approach will result in higher-quality work. Research I conducted for Creating Innovators (2012) points to the importance of play, passion, and purpose in stimulating young people’s intrinsic motivation.

In Search Of New Agreements

It is increasingly true in the United States that what gets tested is all that gets taught. To scale innovation, we need broader agreement on the education outcomes that matter most, as well as an accountability system aligned with those outcomes. The key to accomplishing these two tasks, I believe, is for educators to more actively engage with business and community leaders and to work together to develop a more 21st Century appropriate accountability system.


Busteed, B. (2013, January 7). The school cliff: Student engagement drops with each school year [Web log post]. Accessed at http://thegallupblog.gallup.com/2013/01/the-school- cliff-student-engagement.html on November 2, 2013.

Tony’s recent blog for P21.org
Tagged on: