International Reads: Defining 21st Century Skills and Delivering School Transparency

Education in a Changing World: Flexibility, Skills and Employability.

The World Bank (2012). Education in a Changing World: Flexibility, Skills and Employability.
In order to provide students with 21st century skills, curriculum and examinations must teach and test teamwork, leadership, and communication skills, according to a new report from the World Bank.  Adding their voice to many recent reports on 21st century skills necessary for individuals to succeed in the global economy, the study reiterates that across the world, employers are seeking individuals who possess a combination of technical and “soft skills”, however many schools are not currently organized to easily facilitate the development of these competencies.

Education in a Changing World: Flexibility, Skills and Employability argues that countries must provide people with the right skills to actively participate in the economy.  These skills include “soft skills” which the report defines as communication skills, creativity, leadership, teamwork, the ability to learn, values and ethics.  The report argues that although the labor market demands “soft skills” as well as subject-area knowledge, most schools are organized only according to disciplines.  Most teachers are focused on examinations and most students prioritize good grades above all else.  And teachers are unequipped to teach “soft skills”.  The report recommends that soft skills be developed and integrated into school curricula and that school systems partner with employers to identify skill gaps.

To develop a 21st century skilled workforce, countries should develop flexible education systems that provide learners with the skills they need in response to changing circumstances.  An adaptable system has the advantage of imparting knowledge and skills when people need them and delivering learning wherever it is convenient.  The report advises countries to determine which part of their education system should offer more flexibility by examining their economic needs.  It defines flexibility as learning opportunities that include formal and non-formal education options, full and part-time programs, a variety of majors in both the technical and vocational fields, classes designed for college age and adult learners, financial subsidies for tuition and scholarships, easily transferrable credits and varied course durations.  Middle-income countries, where the challenge is to increase attendance in tertiary education, may want to provide more flexibility in two-year college programs.  Low-income countries, where the challenge is to increase attendance in secondary education, may want to consider providing more flexibility in their technical and vocational education programs and offering various long- and short-term skills training programs.

Education, the report says, does not take place in isolation from the outside world, but is highly linked to the world of work.  The report argues that education tends to be rigid and conservative while labor markets are fluid and unpredictable.  Effective linkages between the two depend on changes in both sectors.  Therefore, apprenticeship programs must respond to the changing context of the labor market and information and career guidance must be readily available for students, particularly for low-income students who have fewer networks and connections to the labor market.  Part of the responsibility also falls on learners to be realistic in their expectations, prepare themselves with the skills in demand and develop self-learning skills to make themselves more desirable to employers.

While much is known about enrollment and completion rates of students in secondary, vocational and tertiary education in OECD countries, much less is known in developing countries where much of the World Bank’s work takes place.  The report calls for more research in this area as well as more information on the skills and competencies required and valued in the job market in low-income countries.  In particular, the report emphasizes the need for more research on school-to-work transition; stressing the lack of data on whether vocational education contributes more to economic growth than general secondary education.

Teaching and Leadership For the Twenty-First Century: The 2012 International Summit on the Teaching Profession.

Asia Society (2012). Teaching and Leadership For the Twenty-First Century: The 2012 International Summit on the Teaching Profession.
Teaching and Leadership For the Twenty-First Century offers reflections from the 2012 International Summit on the Teaching Profession held in New York City this past March and convened by the U.S. Department of Education.  One of the main themes of the conference was how to create the learning conditions that give the next generation the skills to create the future.  A concern that was echoed by many of the Summit participants is the divide between the ideal of “twenty-first century schools” and the reality of schools today.  A representative from Norway said that schools say they test twenty-first century skills, but really only test basic skills.  This conflict in goals sends mixed messages to teachers about what is expected of their students versus what is valued on examinations for which both teachers and students are held accountable.

Participants also discussed the growing demands on teachers and the resources and training they will need to be effective in instilling twenty-first century skills.  A background report (Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders) prepared in advance of the Summit laid out the key elements on this point that participants discussed: effective school systems need clear standards for what teaching graduates should know and be able to do in each subject, accountability on the part of teacher preparation programs for ensuring teachers have these competencies, more mentoring for new teachers, development of a wider pedagogical repertoire among trainee teachers such as co-operative and inquiry-based learning, greater capacity by teachers to incorporate ICT skills in all coursework, greater facility by teachers in using data to guide instruction, greater understanding of local and global cultures and communities and research skills to diagnose and solve classroom problems based on evidence.

Another overarching issue emerging from the Summit was how to best match teacher supply with demand.  Countries must expand the overall supply of high quality teachers, address shortages in specific subjects, recruit teachers to teach in the neediest areas and work hard to retain teachers over time.  To get there, participants agreed that policy responses are needed at two different levels: improving the general attractiveness of the teaching profession and more targeted approaches to getting teachers into high-need areas.  Installing effective leadership at the school level also emerged as a key issue and countries discussed how they recruit highly qualified leaders, provide systematic and high-quality training to their school leaders and maintain ongoing support and appraisal of principals.  Lastly, Summit participants discussed the importance of building partnerships and support for reform among employers, schools of education, university leaders, the media, parents and students.

At the summit, each participating country offered what they viewed as their top priority, commitment, or action steps to improve the teaching profession in their country.  You can find details by country in the full report.  Finland, for example, “Seeks to develop new collaborative models for school development and teacher education development, change assessment to better meet curricula goals, improve pedagogical use of social media, and participate in an international network for teacher education.”  Japan’s goal is to further advance its efforts at reform of preparation, recruitment, and professional development for its teachers.

Barbara Ischinger, Director of Education at OECD, remarked during the closing session that, “it is clear that learning from other countries, whether through a Summit or through visits to other systems, is an increasingly important learning tool for policymakers and educators.”  A third Summit will be convened by the Netherlands and is scheduled to take place in Amsterdam in 2013.

Delivering School Transparency in Australia: National Reporting Through My School.

OECD. (2012). Delivering School Transparency in Australia: National Reporting Through My School.
Australia’s My School website, launched in 2010, is an innovative school reporting tool that was created as part of Australia’s comprehensive education reform program.  This new report from the OECD, part of their Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education series, provides an analysis of the website, couching their findings in the broader contexts of Australia’s recent education reforms and the general challenges of school reporting and providing school transparency to government and the public.  The bulk of the report provides an overview of Australia’s recent adoption of a national assessment program and the manner in which they created and rolled out the My School website, as well as providing a detailed overview of the types of data available on the website.

The authors conclude that the My School website is a particularly effective national data reporting tool, due largely to certain policy decisions made at its inception.  These included identifying international models in this arena and adapting them to create a model appropriate to the Australian context.  Additionally, the goals and objectives for the design of the system were based on scientific evidence from independent experts.  Another strength of the My School website is that it avoids league tables and instead provides school data in a unique way, only comparing a school to other schools with similar student bodies.  This type of data reporting provides greater insight into school performance and prevents misunderstandings that may arise from more common reporting tools such as rankings and league tables.

The OECD, using data from both their own PISA program and the United States, finds that in general, reporting school-level test scores tends to improve school performance, largely because it provides information to the school community who can then use the information to influence needed changes at the school level.  Other countries struggling with issues of school reporting and transparency may draw some policy lessons from Australia’s experience.  Among these are the need to have strong political leadership, to “articulate a clear case for policy change,” to invest in creating good data and to understand the public interest in access to this type of information.  It is also important to note that My School is an integral part of a set of systemic school reforms, rather than a band-aid applied to the existing system.

The case of Australia makes clear that when it comes to school reporting, the type of data available, and the way it is presented, is more important than simply collecting the data.  Merely ranking a school by its test scores is not enough to determine how that school is performing; instead, being able to see how that school compares to similar schools, how the students compare demographically to other students, and how the students in that school have improved or declined over time, tells us much more.  For more on how the My School website and other Australian education reforms are changing the face of education Down Under, please see our interview with Barry McGaw, Chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, from earlier in the year.