NEA Director Stresses Importance of 21st Century Skills at IEP SeminarBy Amanda Dagg
For the first time since the inception of the public education system, the current generation of American youth may not surpass the previous generation in educational attainment. This was one of many sobering facts presented by John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association (NEA), at a recent International Education Policy (IEP) Program seminar held in Gutman Conference Center. The NEA is the largest professional employee organization in the United States, representing public educators at all levels.
“I don’t believe the current education system is serving our children well,” Wilson said. In addition to low levels of attainment, dropout levels are disturbingly high – 6,000 students each day, 1.2 million annually — and more than half of the nation’s school buildings are considered unfit for learning. Furthermore, American students’ performance in school ranks in the bottom half of industrialized nations.
With these facts in mind, Wilson introduced the NEA’s approach to improving America’s public education system. “I don’t think it’s just about reform,” he said. “If we are going to truly become the great public school system we want to become, we need to transform public education, and we need to transform it so that every child has access to a good public school.”
A significant element of this transformation, according to Wilson, needs to be the integration of what the NEA refers to as 21st century skills. This includes an increased focus on critical thinking, problem solving, and innovation in the classroom. While the core academic subjects are still very important, themes of global awareness, economic and civic literacy, and life skills need to be incorporated into curricula.
Wilson also stressed the importance of teaching information, media, and technology skills in school. “We are plenty in technological resources to enhance our education, yet the lack of equity and amount of resources that kids have in America is amazing,” he said, citing the vast difference between technology use in poor and affluent schools.
Surveys done by the NEA indicates that the public values these skills highly and believes that public schools are underperforming with respect to many of them. Even though a small percentage of America’s students have access to high quality public education, the NEA wants to ensure that every child is afforded this opportunity so that they might be better equipped for the changing world and changing economy. “It’s a whole new economy that is coming to this country and it will require new and different skills,” Wilson said. “We need to close the gaps because everybody needs to be a part of this new economy.”
In order to promote the integration of 21st century skills into all aspects of public education – professional development of teachers, curriculum, and assessment — the NEA has entered several partnerships with influential members of the business community and various educational groups. “The business community is very powerful in this country. It’s better to have these conversations with them than not have them in the room,” he said. The organization has also made recommendations to politicians at all levels of government.
At the heart of the NEA’s plan for transformation are their core values and theories of success. Through support for pro-public education politicians and advocacy on behalf of education professionals, they seek to bring about good public policy and practice. “If you do that, you get student achievement and good public support for public education,” Wilson concluded.