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Are American Graduates Really Ready to Work?

Business Schools Partner to Improve Employee Competence

Reading, writing, and arithmetic may have done it for our parents or even ourselves, but knowledge of those core subjects alone is no longer sufficient to prepare American high school and college graduates to work and compete in the global 21st century economy. Several major employers, including Cisco, Apple, and Intel, experienced such frustration with finding workers with the necessary knowledge and skills that they joined forces to close the gap. Enlisting the National Education Association as a partner, representatives from those major companies and others went directly to the U.S. Department of Education to voice their concerns. Then, they took action.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills was created in 2002 to work with state school systems and districts to align classroom environments with real-world environments. Founding corporate partners included the companies listed above plus AOL Time Warner, Dell, Microsoft, and SAP.

“There was a strong sense of corporate responsibility [for addressing these gaps], as business truly is the beneficiary,” says Steven Paine, Ed.D, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, or P21. “Businesses have told us that we have a lot of work to do in the core subjects, but there is also a wide workplace skills gap that employers have been forced to fill. They must spend time and money to teach employees basic business skills even though they recruit and hire top candidates.”

“Companies were frustrated,” agrees Helen Soule, executive director of P21. “Employees lacked the skills to make the knowledge work. They needed to be told what to do.”

Since its inception in 2002, P21 has more than quadrupled its membership, growing from eight founding organizations to 39 members representing America’s leading business, technology, and education organizations. The group works to improve education by incorporating 21st century readiness into state school systems; 19 have signed on thus far.

Paine, P21 president since mid-January, was State Superintendent of Schools for West Virginia when he first heard of the organization at a Council of Chief State School Officers meeting. The P21 executive director at the time, along with a representative from Dell, presented the P21 framework to the assembled group.

“I was spellbound,” says Paine. “I saw it as exactly the right agenda for linking our school systems to the business world. We have an obligation to prepare kids for life after formal schooling. If schools don’t do it, who will?”

With input from employers, researchers, and funders, P21 has developed an educational framework for learning in the 21st century. They have identified six key elements of a 21st century education:

  • Core subjects: English, math, science, foreign language, civics, government, economics, arts, history, and geography
  • 21st century content: global awareness; financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial literacy; civic literacy; health and wellness awareness; and environmental literacy
  • Learning and thinking skills: critical thinking, problem solving, communication, creativity, innovation, collaboration, information and media literacy, and contextual learning
  • Information and communications technology literacy
  • Life skills: leadership, ethics, accountability, adaptability, productivity, responsibility, people skills, self-direction, and social responsibility.

The framework is represented graphically as a rainbow, with the core subjects (still referred to as the “three Rs”) and the “four Cs”—critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation—as the center arc. P21 continues to assess the relevance of the framework by surveying stakeholders. The most recent study was conducted in 2010, in partnership with the American Management Association; 1,200 human resources managers across the country were surveyed.

“The skills represented by the four Cs were overwhelmingly identified by those stakeholders as crucial,” says Soule.

Ten years old, P21 is entering its second phase. “We have been about advocacy and awareness. Our future lies in an implementation agenda,” says Paine.

How will the organization know whether its efforts have been successful? “We need partners in the research community to assess whether the kids who participate in the P21 learning program acquire those skills,” Paine says.

“The ultimate test is whether employers see improvement,” agrees Soule.

P21 is currently working on an Exemplar Project to identify and document information about best practices being developed in individual schools and districts. Its advocacy mission continues as well: The U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a policy resolution in 2005 supporting a framework for 21st century readiness. On January 22, 2013, U.S. representatives Tom Petri (R-WI) and Dave Loebsack (D-IA) reintroduced H.R. 347, the 21st Century Readiness Act. The Act asks for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act currently under consideration by Congress, and strengthens support for 21st century education efforts underway in many states and districts.

“Employers I meet with continually emphasize that, in our 21st century economy, students need skills that go beyond the basics of reading, writing, and math,” Petri has said. “States and schools should have the flexibility to use existing grant money to promote skills that will make their students successful in a foreign economy.”

Educators in other countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Singapore, are adopting and adapting the P21 model, Paine says. “There is a movement around the world as nations recognize that this is the right agenda for them.”

Other organizations, including the Learning Metrics Task Force of UNESCO and the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, are working to increase awareness and improve access and outcomes for students in developing countries worldwide.

Regardless of location, businesses and nonprofit organizations that take part in this crucial conversation can help shape the future of education and thus the knowledge and skills of generations of potential employees.