21st Century Skills: A Global Imperative

This is our reality.

In many urban areas our graduation rates hover around fifty percent. Nearly forty percent of our students need remediation in college after they graduate from high school. We have one million students dropping out of school each year. And recently, President Obama pointed out that there are U.S. businesses eager to hire, but they simply can’t find American workers with the right skills.

International Summit LogoSomething is amiss. America’s students are clearly not workforce ready.

And we’re not alone in the conversation.

This week, education ministers, national union heads, and teacher leaders from over 20 countries around the world will eagerly descend on New York City for the 2nd annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession co-hosted by the Department of Education, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Education International (EI) with the support of the National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, (NBPTS), Asia Society, and WNET.

The Summit will engage the international community in rigorous discussions around how we can better train and develop quality teachers to improve student achievement. Developing school leaders, matching the supply and demand of quality teachers, and delivering 21st century skills are the three key themes.

“It’s clear that no two countries are the same,” Secretary Duncan said, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t face common challenges.”

These countries are gathering because they recognize that the demands of a 21st century world call for thoughtful change in how we do education.

Summit hosts will ask nations to talk about the competencies teachers need to teach 21st century skills and how teacher preparation programs can prepare teachers for a 21st century classroom that not only incorporates, but demands, more focus on critical thinking, STEM, foreign language, collaborative problem-solving, and technology literacy.

The International Summit on the Teaching Profession represents an extraordinary achievement for the education dialogue. It’s the second time in history that ministers, union leaders and educators sit down together in one space at one time to discuss, share ideas, and problem-solve some of our biggest challenges in education as a unified front.

During the recent launch of Project RESPECT Secretary Duncan said, “No other profession carries a greater burden for securing our economic future.” Agreed.

As teachers, we want our students to succeed and be college and career-ready. But we want our definition of success to be meaningful. This Summit provides the opportunity for us to glean insights from other countries about what would be particularly helpful to teachers and teacher policy in the US to help all students to be more successful.

By bringing together high performing and rapidly improving countries from around the world, jointly represented by their teachers and educational leaders, I am hopeful the U.S. can discover real solutions for developing 21st century teacher and school leader workforces through effective practices that transcend differences among cultures and countries.

Claire Jellinek is a 9th-12th grade social studies teacher at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque, NM and a 2011-2012 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.


  1. Paul, I agree that school testing must occur more frequently. All too often testing takes place only quarterly and with that a note is sent home asking parents to help prep our children for the upcoming test. Are these tests really a true indicator of how well our children are learning or are they really tools to make schools appear to be more successful? Back in our day, we were given at a minimum regular or bi-weekly tests as well as pop quizzes. I believe these “old fashioned” methods provide a more concrete, true and real time picture of how well each child is learning. When we wait for quarterly testing, what I’ve learned from speaking with other parents is that too many children are falling behind, leaving us parents to find alternative methods of helping our children to catch up with their expected grade level curriculum and help them to start caught up. We seek out private tutoring at large expense and time commitments. We do this because we love our children and want the best for them. But why is it that the level of commitment and teaching methods that our children receive outside of school as well as that good “old fashioned” method seems to have proven better results for our children when compared to the new gentler, more individualized methods used by schools today. While I greatly encouragemodern methods be explored and implemented? We must not forget the tried and true methods that continue to prove themselves. Let’s get back to some basics and put our children’s educational needs ahead of appearing to be concerned and ahead of the pack. Only then will our children really learn at a global pace and then be ready for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. Our children and country can be great if given the proper tools while in school!

  2. We need to be thinking about ways to get post-secondary folks at the table when we discuss instructional practice. The ongoing improvement of teaching and learning in P-12 classrooms is essential. However, the same is true for higher ed. Rich bodies of research address ways to support student motivation and academic skill development across content areas in higher education. Yet colleges continue to silo students deemed to have insufficient post-secondary academic skills in developmental courses that let everyone else off the hook – and that have, at best, an inconsistent track record. If we are sincere about college graduation, we will take action now!

  3. My wife and I currently have three children in college. We have run a household where the only question pursued by our children was “which” college they were attending, not “whether” they were attending. Reading is fundamental in our household, much more so than television. We limited the numbers of hours of television watched, we monitored their television watching and we paid particular attention to the level and type of computer traffic generated.

    We also realize that our desires and objectives (as parents) for them were not theirs – and they would have to succeed or fail based on their own work habits, study skills and their own commitment to excellence. We did spend summers and the “vacation” trip money on speed reading and college-level note taking for our children. We also financed Kaplan Test Preparation Courses and provided tutors for courses where they were struggling. As parents, we testified before the San Diego Unified School Board against shifting physics from the senior year to the freshman year without adequate curriculum preparation or modification of algebra as a prerequisite. We (not the School Administration) presented the grades from a particular class which included our daughter, to illustrate that the average grade was an “F” and that without a solid evaluation plan, such wide-spread system upheavals were disruptive to our children. A grade of “F” in physics results in students who have no appreciation for science, math or engineering. (This condition of last priority for science and math among high school students should not be a mystery).

    Over these last twenty years, we learned that educating a generation of young people is a community affair, one that integrates four-components – parents, students, teachers and employers. Educational systems should explain – and market – the support role for parents to pursue in raising their children – one that escalates with grade-level. Where some parents cannot respond due to conflicts or work schedules or attitude, others will follow. Homework should be required from every course, nearly every day.

    Measurement of students (grades) should occur biweekly – definitely more frequently than quarterly. These grades should be sent to the parents and the children. We believe that students will do better when they are watched. Teachers will also do better when they are watched. The current financial incentives is for school districts to reward teachers for choosing “upper end” communities where the educational processes are the easiest. This strategy is fundamentally wrong. The toughest work should generate the highest salaries and these are the communities where there are the fewest opportunities and where self-worth is challenged.

    The digital divide is a compelling barrier to success for lower income families. Computer-based, work-place sponsored educational resources must be a challenge when the digital gap is not repaired or replaced anywhere in their communities – neither at home (income), nor at school (restricted budgets). Digital design and computer innovation centers should be crafted inside successful YMCA’s and other community organizations. One such center is the Jackie Robinson YMCA in San Diego, lead by Michael Brunker. Digital industry leaders in San Diego like Qualcomm, the West Wireless Health Institute and the Wireless Life Sciences Alliance claim that they are leading a wireless community in development here in San Diego. “A rising tide lifts all boats”. These youth centers are the locations where rapid deployment of technology-lead innovations will make a huge difference in communities – financed by these companies and lead by young people who understand the transmission of digital systems and culture. These are also the locations where the partnership with adults will generate meaningful longer-term results, particularly in business development centers like the Southeast Economic Development Corporation, which could lead the way for patents and the control of intellectual property.

    At the same time, globalization (and the North American Free Trade Agreement) have proven that shifting jobs overseas would eliminate a portion of the middle class from the United States. The 8 million jobs lost during the period 2000 – 2010 has proven that. The cost reduction for the near-slavery level salaries paid to overseas workers has not reduced the price for an Apple product (perhaps a little), although prices have dropped for many laptops and large television screens. There were few employee-protection arguments in 1993, when NAFTA was promoted – except for Ross Perot, who warned that the sucking sound we would hear would be the loss of jobs that left the United States for cheaper labor.

    This is important now because many young people have graduated from college who cannot find a job in the U.S. and are unwilling to go overseas to follow the “off shore job market”. Foreign cultures have the strength of their own language and culture and communication relationships. Our college graduates simply do not know what to do next to compete with them on their soil. Congress could pursue a nationwide Career Development Act that would help really make America great (again). The past two decades have been musical chairs for new workers in the development of meaningful jobs here in the United States. Centers for innovation and creativity are needed for digital divide communities and warranted for everyone. All major cities and key rural environments should design a 10 year plan for the redevelopment of the settler’s spirit – particularly regarding green environment, energy (solar) development and wireless health care.

    The American people should also keep Hurricane Katrina and health care records in mind. For all of the disruption and the chaos that emerged, once electricity was restored, the medical records of veterans were made available when needed. That’s because an electronic medical record system existed without much national attention. When needed, however, the system lead by the veterans shined. The Veterans Administration has already accomplished great work, under Dr. Adam Darkins, MBBS, and Judith Jensen, RN, (VSN 22) in monitoring the health of chronically ill – through in-home monitoring. These Veteran-leaders should be the next HUGE partner in crafting the reduction of health care costs for community health expenses through patterns which represent their integrated use of nurses and consumers. The value-base of the system – Patients’ First.


  4. “No other profession carries a greater burden for securing our economic future.”

    I’m really tired of hearing about the relationship between education and our economy. To hear Arne Duncan talk, you’d think the only reason we educate children is to produce competent workers and compete in a global economy. If this is the case, why not just let businesses take over and they can have from kindergarten on to produce whatever kind of workers they want?

    • Well said Erin! The true mark of a quality education is instilling a love for life long learning. Even if we were to produce a college/work ready adult (mind you they are adults when they graduate who have a choice about how they will perform in the future), will they be able to continue learning throughout their life time without someone tutoring them continuously? Can they learn to make of their education what it can be through out their life time? It doesn’t end when they cross the stage and shake hands with their high school principal.

  5. The folks at this international summit ought to look at how we need to change the delivery of instruction from teacher-centered to learner-centered. Students are not prepared for work or college because they are not taught how to learn and how to be self-directed. In the 21st Century, learning becomes the responsibilty of the individual, and we are not giving our students the tools for the challenge.

  6. Our teachers must now engage students with skills in using technologies, because it will be a requirement, to participate in the future economy.

  7. Any thoughts about whether we should be thinking about 22nd century skills? We are already a decade behind on 21st century skills.

    • Bob has an excellent thought. While readying for the 22nd century of teaching science and computer/technology based learning, let us remember to bring the basics back to classrooms too. Unless our children can effectively read, write and calculate (simple math concepts) how can they really be prepared for a fruitful future? Too many children do not understand basic concepts today and that is a shame. When was the last time a young store cashier was able to make correct change without the use of the cash register/calculator? And, couple this with texting – so many young people can no longer spell or utilize correct grammar. We are doing a great disservice by not teaching basic skills to our children. Let’s put their educational needs back in the forefront where it belongs.

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