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Education & Workforce Development

Education for the 21st Century

By Linda M. Noonan, Executive Director, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education

There has been a great debate in education circles lately about the importance of integrating 21st century skills into the public school curriculum. Critics charge that basic knowledge is most important and student performance will decline if learning time is diverted to these applied skills. Advocates say our students need to develop these skills to be competitive. The reality is that both views are right! Students need to continue to meet high standards in academic content while developing the communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills they need to engage successfully in a global economy and society. 

MBAE’s report Preparing for the Future: Employer Perspectives on Work Readiness Skills documents the concerns that Massachusetts employers have about the competencies our high school graduates bring to the workplace. Over the past year, MBAE engaged leaders of the business community in discussions that led to recommended strategies and tactics for addressing these concerns, issued in our  report, Educating a 21st Century Workforce: A Call to Action on High School Reform. What we have learned is that a 21st century education requires more than adjustments to our current school model. Major change in our delivery of educational services is necessary. In addition to content mastery, critical thinking and problem-solving, communication, and other applied skills that cross disciplinary boundaries are essential to meaningful participation in our communities and workplaces and, therefore, must be part of a 21st century education for our students.

Manufacturers have more experience than most employers in understanding the radical changes that technology and global markets mean for business. The manufacturing community can help all stakeholders understand and accept the reality that 21st century skills are a tool to raise student achievement, not a ploy to weaken the standards and accountability measures that have led to our state’s progress over the past 15 years of education reform. By providing internships for students as well as opportunities for teachers to visit your facilities, manufacturers can increase understanding of workplace expectations and dispel misconceptions about opportunities in manufacturing. Find out what your local schools are doing to prepare students for postsecondary success and offer to help students understand the relevance and importance of academic preparation. 

There is little dispute that our children need the skills to function successfully in a rapidly changing competitive economy and society. The high performance of Massachusetts students on national measures is cause for celebration but not complacency. We must support the models of excellence that exist in some of our schools and ensure that these are replicated for every child in Massachusetts while continually pursuing new and better approaches for the future. Even in a fiscally challenged environment, if we collectively commit to ensuring that every student is prepared for responsible citizenship and postsecondary success, we can allocate resources effectively to accomplish this goal. It will take all of us working together to get there.


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