The Challenge for American Education

Research on high school dropout rates and causes highlights the severity of the crisis in education in America: Nearly one in three high school students in America this year will not graduate. Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center. Diplomas Count: Ready for What? Preparing Students for College, Careers and Life after High School. Education Week, June 2007.

Every 29 seconds, another high school student in America gives up on school, resulting in more than 1 million high school dropouts every year. Nearly one-third of all public high school students-and nearly one-half of all African American, Hispanic, and Native American students-fail to graduate with their class. In nearly 2000 high schools in the United States, the typical freshman class loses 40 percent of its students by their senior year. Ending the Silent Epidemic, 2007.

The gap between whites and Hispanic/Latinos with a bachelor’s degree or higher has nearly doubled in the past 20 years. The gap between whites and African-Americans has grown from 11 percentage points to 15. If these trends continue, per capita personal income in the United States will fall 2 percent between 2000 and 2020, an alarming reversal of the 41 percent growth seen over the prior two decades. National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Income of U.S. Workforce Projected to Decline If Education Doesn’t Improve. Policy Alert. 2005.

The long-term impact of high school dropout rates on our society is catastrophic. Dropouts are more likely than high school graduates to be unemployed, in poor health, living in poverty, on public assistance, and to be single parents with children who also drop out of high school. They are eight times more likely than high school graduates to be in jail or prison. They are four times less likely to volunteer than college graduates, twice less likely to vote or participate in community projects, and they represent only 3 percent of actively engaged citizens in the United States today. Ending the Silent Epidemic, 2007.

Most students report that dropping out of high school is a gradual process of disengagement that results in the lack of social or emotional connection to school. The good news is that the disengagement process can be reversed with more relevant, challenging coursework and individualized support from schools, educators, parents, and community.

Preparing Students for Life and Work in a Changing World

Young Americans coming of age in this century-the 70 million people born between 1982 and 2000-live in a world that is dramatically more complex than it was just a few years ago. In a remarkably short period of time, the world and its people, economies, and cultures have become inextricably connected, driven largely by the Internet, innovations in mobile computers and devices, and low-cost telecommunications technology.

This global interdependence has profound implications for all aspects of American society-from how we think and work to how we play and learn.

In business, for example, 9 to 5 has been replaced by 24 by 7, as technology keeps us "always on" and our markets and workforces extend across every time zone. And the focus of business is changing to match the largest growth opportunities-those abroad. International commerce now accounts for a quarter of the American economy and is fueling a third of U.S. economic growth.

The business case for global markets is compelling, and to compete abroad successfully, American companies need a workforce equipped to translate American business models and offerings to international marketplaces.

Moreover, many of the challenges facing us-geopolitical tensions, climate change, and disease pandemics-are global in nature and scale, and thus demand cross-border perspectives and solutions.

According to a 2002 survey by the Committee for Economic Development, 30 percent of large U.S. businesses believe that a "provincial, monolingual workforce" had cost them global business opportunities. Source: D. McGray. Lost in America. Foreign Policy. 2006.

In such a world, tangible skills such as language proficiency are obviously critical to success. But language skills are just part of the equation. To be productive global citizens, Americans need other skills that are less tangible, including greater sensitivity to cultural differences, openness to new and different ideas, and the ability to adapt to change.

The massive amount of information and opinion available to us offline and online can help us meet these challenges, but awash in this sea of information, each of us needs to be able to sort fact from fiction and evaluate and interpret conflicting ideas. We also need to know how to work collaboratively and creatively in person, by telephone, and online to make decisions and take action.

Educating young people to be successful in this changing world is no small task, but the consequences of failing to do so are enormous. Current data show that high school graduates in jobs requiring the highest degree of innovative thinking earn more than 50 percent more than those in jobs requiring the least innovation. For college graduates, the difference is 135 percent. Uhalde, Ray and Strohl, Jeff. America in the Global Economy: A Background Paper for the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. National Center on Education and the Economy, December, 2006.

Only one in three American seventh to 12th graders studies a foreign language. In elementary school, that number is just one in 20. D. McGray. Lost in America. Foreign Policy. 2006.

America is failing to teach non-European languages; 90 percent of U.S. secondary schools offer Spanish classes; just 1 percent offer Chinese and even fewer offer Arabic. K. Manzo. Students Taking Spanish, French; Leaders Pushing Chinese, Arabic. Education Week. 2006.

A parallel trend shows that our current practice of outsourcing jobs to countries such as China and India is making it more difficult for unskilled American workers to earn middle-class incomes. Yankelovich, Daniel (November 25, 2005) Ferment and Change: Higher Education in 2015, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

These trends, combined with high school dropout rates, make it clear that as a nation, we must rethink what we are now doing to improve K-12 education in America. Increasingly, policy makers and education leaders are doing this.

For example, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires schools to demonstrate adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward the goal of all students being able to perform at grade level. This has helped focus attention on some of the problems with K-12 education in America and attempted to provide added resources to schools that are failing. But many education leaders believe that No Child Left Behind’s demand that progress be measured solely through standardized tests of students’ knowledge of a limited number of core subjects has caused many schools to "teach to the test." While this may produce better test scores, it diminishes schools’ incentive to focus on teaching methods that engage students and on teaching skills that prepare students for success in life and work in the 21st century.

Equally important, No Child Left Behind has had no impact on keeping students in school. The national high school dropout rate has remained unchanged for decades.

Rethinking Education in America

Despite No Child Left Behind, educational standards - grade-by-grade, subject-by-subject learning goals - have declined in 30 states from 2000-2006. The Proficiency Illusion. Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Northwest Evaluation Associates (NWEA). October 2007.

Twenty years ago school was the place where students learned information and skills in core subject areas such as English, language arts, science, and history. Educators were primarily information experts who passed along to their students what they had learned in school.

Today, information is readily available from numerous sources. With a computer, the Internet, and a search engine, much of the information students once spent the entire school year learning can be acquired in a fraction of the time or on an as-needed basis. These technology innovations democratize information, giving students direct access to the building blocks of their future knowledge-organized, indexed, and affordable content, resources, and instruction available 24 by 7. It also shifts the locus of control to the student, enabling them to pursue learning both in school (formal learning) and outside of school (informal learning).

These are profound changes that require schools to become more than information repositories; they must also be places where students can acquire knowledge and skills they can use to solve complex problems for the rest of their lives. These changes affect the role of educators even more dramatically. Educators must become more than information experts; they must also be collaborators in learning-leveraging the power of students, seeking new knowledge alongside students, and modeling positive habits of mind and new ways of thinking and learning.

What and How We Teach Must Change

To make these transitions, schools and educators must be well versed in core subjects, the broad range of interdisciplinary knowledge, skills and attitudes that education and business leaders call "21st century skills," and in teaching methods that engage and inspire students to learn.

Examples of 21st century skills include global awareness, financial and entrepreneurial literacy, information and media literacy, civic literacy, and health literacy. Students also need to acquire skills such as innovation and creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving, information and media literacy, self-direction, adaptability, and accountability. Partnership for 21st Century Skills (August 2, 2007). Framework for 21st Century Learning.

In terms of teaching methods, schools must recognize that what engages this generation of learners is very different from what may have engaged previous generations.

Americans are becoming less - not more - globally engaged. Only 21 percent of Americans own passports and the percentage of Americans traveling internationally has grown at a slower rate than the number of foreign travelers visiting the United States. Less than 9 percent of American university students study a foreign language today, down from 16 percent in 1965. And coverage of foreign affairs has dropped significantly across U.S. mainstream media in recent decades. A. Granitsas. Americans are Tuning Out the World. YaleGlobal. 2005.

Students today have grown up in a world where mobile computers, cell phones with browsers, and other personal digital devices are common tools, and instant messaging, blogs, and wikis are common modes of self-expression.

All together, students spend an average of nearly 6.5 hours a day with media. Jenkins, H. et al. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.{CD911571-0240-4714-A93B-1D0C07C7B6C1}&notoc=1 According to the 2005 Pew Internet & American Life Project to 87 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds-or 21 million young people-are Internet users, an increase of 24 percent from 2000. Three-quarters of today’s teens use at least two digital devices daily. Walker, Chip and Medeiros, Gia (March 30, 2006). GenWorld: The New Generation of Global Youth. BBDO Energy. Students routinely observe adults in professions and workplaces enabled by the same technologies and tools they use in their own daily lives.

Because of today’s digital technology, students live a media rich, connected, and mobile lifestyle, and they are just as often producers of content as they are consumers. Web 2.0 technologies, including social networks and participatory sites such as YouTube, MySpace, Second Life, and World of Warcraft, provide them with engaging opportunities for interaction and informal learning, and create new opportunities to leverage this informal learning by integrating it purposefully into the fabric of formal learning.

Not surprisingly, students today expect to learn in an environment that mirrors their lives and their futures-one that seamlessly integrates today’s digital tools, accommodates a mobile lifestyle, and encourages collaboration and teamwork in physical and virtual spaces.

One in 3 people in the world own cell phones; this is expected to grow 50 percent in the next 2 years. Source: D. Ley. Ubiquitous computing. Emerging technologies for learning, p. 77. Becta Publishers. 2007

Eight percent of Internet users or about 12 million Americans keep a blog. Thirty-nine percent or about 57 million read blogs. Source Pew Internet & American Life Project. Report: Bloggers: A Portrait of the Internet’s new Storytellers. July 19, 2006.

Too often, though, these are not the attributes students find at school. For example, one student described going to school as being like flying on an airplane. He has to turn off all his digital devices, strap himself in, and wait until the end of the flight to resume his digital life.

The disconnect between a student’s digital life and school matters because students learn better when they are engaged, and research about what engages them points to technology. America’s Digital Schools 2006, A Five-Year Forecast. Mobilizing the Curriculum. The Greaves Group, The Hayes Connection, 2006. Numerous studies have shown that effective integration of technology into teaching and learning can result in higher levels of student achievement.

The link between technology, engagement, and achievement is especially important for our K-12 schools because by government mandate, their mission has evolved from providing an opportunity for young people to learn to making sure they do. When students must learn, motivating them to learn becomes essential.

Learning Optimized for the 21st Century

There is no shortage of opinions about why American education reform initiatives have fallen short of their goals and no shortage of new ideas for future reforms. The intent of ACOT2 is not, however, to belabor past failures or deconstruct new proposals. Instead, our goal is to help high schools get closer to creating the kind of learning environment this generation of students needs, wants, and expects so they will stay in school. The ACOT2 strategy is to bring 21st century learning into our nation’s high schools.

Twenty-first century learning is at the confluence of three major influences: globalization, which increases global interdependence and competition; technology innovations that enable more engaged teaching and learning and provide 24 by 7 access to content and people; and new research on how people learn.

The importance of research is that it proves what educators have long experienced about how today’s students learn best. For example, educators know that students learn best when they learn with understanding, or use what they already know to derive meaning from new information. Awareness and productive use of one’s own cognitive processes-metacognition-is also important to learning. However, when combined with new and sophisticated cognitive and neuroscience research on such topics as working memory, cognitive overload and executive function, these fundamental concepts become breakthrough ideas that can lead to new and better ways of teaching.

There is another cornerstone concept that informs the ACOT2 approach to 21st century learning and that is the concept of "flow." "Flow" is learning with the volume cranked up, when everything is clicking just right. ACOT2 believes that the most effective educators create opportunities for students to get into the flow-in the context of subjects and curriculum-by working with them to balance the complexity of the task with their current repertoire of learning strategies.

The ACOT2 strategy is to offer a simple approach that focuses on the essential design principles for the 21st century high school-rather than a more prescriptive school reform model. While the design principles themselves are not new, what is new is that the complexity that characterizes most education reform models has been stripped away, enabling immediate action and results.

Learn more about The Six Design Principles of the 21st Century High School