21st-Century Skills Through the Lens of Equity

Posted by Jeff Cacek on 9/12/2014

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty. As our case is anew, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country."

- Abraham Lincoln

 

As North Park enters its third iteration 21st Century Learning in beta I have been taking some time to reflect upon why we have steadfastly pushed ahead into uncharted territory.

My first thought centers on the fact it is a shame that this territory is not better charted - a place where mastery of 21st Century Skills is every bit as important as mastering reading and math. It is clear that our students will need to use communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity with ease in order to find success in the current economy. Information synthesis and creation using all available resources and flexible mastery of the ever-changing tools of the digital age will be important to be functional members of families and social networks, let alone employable. It seems ludicrous that more focus on mastering these skills is not a part of the programming at every school. However, at the end of every Minnesota summer we are reminded why doing what seems so logical can require a lot of courage.

With the beginning of the "Great Minnesota Get-Together" different people are reminded of different things. School administrators are reminded of MCA scores. It is understandable as much can be at stake when we seek validation via test scores. Don't get me wrong - the skills of reading and mathematics are absolutely essential to being good students, workers and citizens. I can't imagine a time when these areas are not central to curriculum and instruction. However, the North Park Leadership Team learned last year from the writing of Dr. Yong Zhao that they are not the only essential skills. From Sir Ken Robinson we learned that sometimes it seems like we have duped ourselves into putting disproportionate emphasis on these two skills - because they are the direct causation of our validation via test scores - that we forget about the big picture. We forget that reading and math do not need to be taught in individual vacuums comprising the whole of the school day. We allow ourselves to forget the majority of the skills our kids will need to master to be functional adults.

It does not take years of investigation to determine which schools are most negatively affected by this mindset. The schools that spend six-and-a-half hours teaching mostly reading and math - slower, louder, repetitively - tend to be the schools that have the highest levels of students living in poverty. They tend to be the schools that have majority populations of students of color. They are often the schools that have the fewest students speaking English as a first language. These are the schools that are more likely to spend a disproportionate amount of the day doing interventions focused only on reading and math. As a result, they are less likely to have project based learning or comprehensive music, visual and digital arts programming - learning opportunities that refine skills that we have come to recognize are every bit as important to building a successful life.

By continuing the methodology of More, Faster, Louder and denying students in low performing schools regular opportunities to practice and master the myriad other skills they will need to be successful in a highly competitive workforce, we marginalize the same groups of students over and over again. This marginalization is not just relevant to school, but to life.

To rethink how we attend to improving test scores is to rethink how we attend to improving the quality of learning for all of our students. Providing opportunity for mastery of 21st Century skills is an issue of equity. At North Park, we are committed to providing our students such opportunities.