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Stealthily pushing soft skills into our schools

Posted by Jim Stergios  August 12, 2010 10:06 AM

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Does anybody remember the “Readiness Project,” the multi-billion plan to give free tuition to community college and undertake dozens of expensive government actions? It was produced by a cast of hundreds and had this amorphous, fluid feel to it, inasmuch as it touched every aspect of government. It was cradle to career. It was premised on the Governor's "whole child" philosophy, replete with a focus on soft skills. It was the return of the bureaucracy-loving education establishment -- affectionately known as the Blob.

No one talks about the Readiness project anymore. But there are plenty of signs that it persists and, by the usual government osmosis, continues to englobe education reform as we know it.

Back during the development of the Readiness Project, Michele Norman, a community organizer and campaign worker for the Governor in 2006, was working with Ken Kay of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) to implement the Governor’s agenda (see: norman ltr.PDF). P21 is a national advocacy group that tries to get states to focus instruction on soft skills like creativity, media savvy, cultural competence, global awareness, problem solving, and improved teamwork instead of, well, academics.

Later in 2008, the then-chairman of the state's board of education unilaterally established a task force to draft a report on how to inject "21st century" skills into the classroom. (FYI for the process hounds among us: the task force was impermissible by the state’s own regulations, which do not allow the chair to establish task forces that include individuals not serving on the board of education.)

Opponents of the MCAS tests and the current, low-key chair of the board of education, Maura Banta, were tickled at the idea of “evolving” the MCAS tests to include these skills students supposedly need to succeed in a rapidly changing, 21st century world.

Unfortunately, Governor Patrick and the P21 fan club ignored inconvenient truths. For example, each of the skills they advocated requires solid knowledge of the liberal arts, the basic premise behind the MCAS and our now-defunct state academic standards. Noted educator E.D. Hirsch came to Boston and pounded the 21st century skills agenda. He asked:

If we are going to re-examine Massachusetts policy, one thing we will want to ask is what sort of standards, curriculum frameworks, and tests will most effectively help raise levels of reading comprehension even further?

He answered the question by drawing a comparison between Massachusetts and Connecticut. In recent years, Connecticut chose to emphasize “how-to” skills, and Massachusetts chose to emphasize content. In presenting NAEP reading test data from 1998 to 2005 (see figure 1 in the link) for the two New England states and the nation, Hirsch noted that Connecticut started out scoring slightly higher than Massachusetts in 1998, but that Massachusetts had the nation’s best record of reading improvement since then.

Hirsch concluded that the data:

Show Connecticut doing its best to descend to the national average in reading. From these data points, we can draw a quick inference. The policies followed by Connecticut between 1998 and 2005 ought to be avoided. And those followed by Massachusetts in recent years ought to be strengthened and improved.

He continued:

First let me amplify my point that reading comprehension and other communication skills are not chiefly “how-to” skills, as Connecticut assumed. That mistaken conception has yielded poor results in Connecticut and elsewhere… Scores went down in Connecticut and other states because their educational leaders had committed an intellectual and scientific error with regard to reading and other academic skills.

Before the Massachusetts board of education, Hirsch stated:

Is it the case, as implied here, that problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation and other desirable traits, here called “skills”, are separable, transferable skills that are independent of a student’s expertise in a specific domain? Do such traits even exist as all-purpose transferable skills?

Even if they did exist independently (which is doubtful), would the best way of inducing critical thinking, innovation, and other desirable traits be the method of “hands-on,” integrated projects, combined with assessments based on those projects?

The psychological literature indicates that skepticism is in order on both of these points.

Does the board want to require a particular (widely questioned) method of teaching rather than requiring results?

Rather than the clearly articulated goals and objective assessments to promote excellence and accountability advocated by Hirsch and the principal architect of Massachusetts’ successful school reform, former Senate President Tom Birmingham, the task force proposed revamping MCAS and using the US history test to try out project-based assessments that require students to demonstrate soft skills like "global awareness" and would crowd out more central topics like the Founding documents, the key elements of the Civil War, or the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester and the board of education, by then hand-picked by the Governor, then mothballed the US History graduation requirement. It remains in mothballs to this day. (Lieutenant Governor Murray, on the radio this morning, noted that it was a good idea to reinstate the requirement… Left hand, right hand stuff, guys.)

The P21 crowd also ignored the fact that their much praised multiple and project-based assessments have a poor track record because they are costly and cumbersome—and they introduce so much subjectivity as to have a corrosive effect on the Commonwealth's efforts to ensure that all students, regardless of where they live, have access to academic content that is the foundation for economic success.

The 21st century skills task force presented no data on student achievement to demonstrate the merits of their agenda, and instead urged Massachusetts to “learn from the experience of West Virginia." Yup, you heard that right. (And again this morning on the radio, the LG started reciting the benefits of having Massachusetts partner with Mississippi on new education reforms… Yikes.)

All of which brings us to the main point. If you look in the economic development bill that was passed a few days ago and signed by the Governor, it once again calls for the state to move ahead on its P21 agenda. How is it possible for a discussion of soft skills to be introduced into a piece of legislation on job creation? See for yourself. You can access the full statute here and see Section 181 for the following language.

SECTION 181. There shall be a commission to develop an index of creative and innovative education in the public schools. The commission shall consist of the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, the secretary of housing and economic development, the secretary of labor and workforce development, or their designees, …

In the course of its deliberations, the commission shall develop recommendations on how to produce and implement an index of creative and innovative education in the public schools, what funding or finance measures the commonwealth would need to implement that index and any recommendations for interagency agreements, intermunicipal agreements or other cooperative agreements that would be required to foster creative and innovative education programs in the public schools. The index shall rate every public school on teaching, encouraging and fostering creativity in students…

Any research, analysis or other staff support that the commission reasonably requires shall be provided by the department of elementary and secondary education, the executive office of housing and economic development and the executive office of labor and workforce development, in cooperation with the Massachusetts cultural council.

Lesson number one in ed reform 2010-style: The Blob is back and it is hungry. You can cut off one of its soft, amorphous appendages, but the Blob returns in places you'd never expect.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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