Redefining, Reinventing, and Rebuilding Schools for the 21st Century

By Jennifer Levin-Goldberg / April 2012

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"Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century."—Sidney Perelman

Ironically, the author of this statement, Sydney Perelman, died in 1979. Almost 30 years a comprehensive study was conducted by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management to evaluate the corporate perspectives on workforce preparedness of new entrants based upon their level of educational achievement [1]. According to the report, the top skills employers identified as requisite in the burgeoning global marketplace are teambuilding/collaboration, oral communication, work ethic/professionalism, knowledge of foreign languages, making appropriate choices concerning health and wellness, and creativity and innovation. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) identifies 21st century skills as life and career skills, learning and innovation skills (collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication), and information, media, and technology. Analyzing the skills the report and P21 classify as compulsory for the 21st century, the results are bleak and at times abysmal.

According to the 2006 report those possessing a high school diploma were considered 80.9 percent deficient in written communication, 70.3 percent deficient in professionalism and work ethic, 69.6 percent deficient in critical thinking and problem solving, 52.7 percent deficient in oral communication, 34.6 percent deficient in Teamwork/Collaboration, and 21.5 percent deficient in information technology. Graduates from two-year colleges or technical schools were 47.3 percent deficient in written communication, 27.6 percent deficient in creativity and innovation, 22.8 percent deficient in critical thinking and problem solving, and 21.3 percent deficient in oral communication. The graduates of four-year colleges were rated as 27.8 percent deficient in written communication; while 27.6 percent were considered "excellent" in critical thinking and problem solving, 24.8 percent excellent in oral communication, 24.6 percent excellent in teamwork/collaboration, and 21.5 percent excellent in creativity and innovation. After reviewing the data, we need to do better. But how? School leaders need to redefine, reinvent, and rebuild the 21st century school. School curricula, instruction, and assessment need to reflect 21st century demands.

The 21st Century Curriculum

With the infamous No Child Life Behind and its emphasis on state accountability, high stakes testing became ubiquitous. Reading, writing, math, and recently science have become the benchmarks to measure a school's academic effectiveness. As a result, other subjects are being pushed along the wayside and invaluable electives are fading into extinction. Examining the current curricula, it is lengthy and archaic. There is more of a focus on quantity of information rather than quality. When new information or events become available, they are simply added to an already copious subject-mattered curriculum. Students cannot retain all this data and teachers cannot disseminate it under current school structures. So what is really important and what will prepare students for 21st century success? The Partners for 21st Century Learning identified several 21st century literacies that should be incorporated into the school curricula: financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial, civic, global awareness, health, and environmental (see Figure 1).

As a school, audit your curriculum. Does it authentically reflect these 21st century exigencies? If not, it is time to ascertain it does. First, determine how course content could be adapted to 21st century literacies. Identify where each of these literacies could be integrated and complement existing courses. Second, in order to potentially alleviate the curricular overload per subject, decide how some topics can be thematically bundled. Third, instead of eliminating electives, add them. In order to decide which ones to add, determine which ones will accommodate student interests and career needs, emulate 21st century literacies, and reflect future occupational demands. According to Wagner, the top future professions in 2030 are robotician, smart car designer, global system architect, global sourcing manager, clone rancher, chef-farmer, bio-regenerative integrator, seed capitalist, personal brand manager, mobile biomass therapist, bio0biotic physician, and alternative currency banker [2]. In 2020, Webley alleges the top future jobs will be vertical farming, patent lawyers, sustainability experts, genetic counselors, elderly care professionals, cyber security specialist, and statisticians [3]. Thomas and Kelley project the top careers for 2014 include network systems and data communication analysts and administrators, physician assistants, computer software engineers, medical scientists, physical and occupational therapists, and college instructors [4]. Does the curriculum offering courses in these fields to better prepare students a productive and germane role in society? If not, perhaps they should.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The standards and content listed are directly aligned to the National Standards enumerated by the NCSS, NCTM, NCTE, APA's National Psychology Standards, National Science Standards, and the Common Core Standards in Math, Science, and Language Arts.

21st Century Instruction

What we teach is imperative but how we teach it is critical. School administrators are also instructional leaders. Are best practices being properly utilized? Are the selected instructional tools developing 21st century skills? The Partnership for 21st Century Skills enumerates collaboration, communication, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, innovation, information, communication, technology (ICT) proficiencies, flexibility, adaptability, leadership, responsibility, self-direction, productivity, and accountability as the 21st century skills necessary to be globally successful. Does your school's instruction authentically cultivate and hone these competencies? Are assignments reflecting real-world scenarios and applications? Is technology infused cross-curricularly? What technology is made available and how equitably? Are classrooms teacher-directed or student-centered? Are students working collaboratively? Is project/problem based learning (PBL) occurring or are learners working independently? Are lesson plans reflecting the aforementioned skills? Does the faculty need to be trained in how to incorporate these competencies? Are they comfortable and adroit at utilizing technology? Does there need to be additional coaching or instruction on best practices? Is there Internet access and sufficient bandwidth? Is there a place for students to go to use the technology after or before school?

If these skills are not being nurtured and polished in the classroom, students will be at a severe disadvantage in the global marketplace. Below are specific examples of how these 21st century skills can be incorporated lessons.

Social Studies integrated with Technology and Language Arts/Reading. In a group of five, students will participate in a webquest to investigate the surrounding history and variegated perspectives regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Each student is accountable for researching a particular perspective and sharing their findings with the group. Cohesively, the group will determine how to best resolve the conflict considering local, regional, and global communities by creating a multimedia presentation, which they will propose to the United Nations. Individually, they will submit a journal reflecting upon their research findings, group decision(s), and how well the group worked together. In this webquest, emailing and utilizing social networks to contact and correspond with actual politicians, victims, and participants involved in this conflict are encouraged. (The webquest can be accessed at

Math integrated with Social Studies and potentially Technology. Students must determine how many people live in India, China, America, and Indonesia per square inch and foot. Then, in groups of four, interpret statistical data to predict what population changes will occur in the next 10 and 20 years within these countries by creating cartograms to demonstrate their projections. Students can download a variety of free software to create cartograms. Creating cartograms incorporating gender, educational attainment, socio-economic levels, and occupation as identifiers can be further enhance the lesson.

Science integrated with Technology, Math, and Social Studies (Economics). In a group of four, students will develop, design, and create a "green" smart car. They will investigate current engineering designs and models and predict why the current green cars are relatively smaller and lack that "sports car appeal." After researching, they will design their own vehicle, determine how it will run (solar, wind, water, battery, gas, a combination, and so forth), calculate how fast and far it can go, and what smart features it will have and how that may affect its efficacy, while keeping the manufacture's cost to no more than $30,000. After the group develops and designs the car, they will create a multimedia presentation persuading a panel of judges to produce it.

Language Arts/Reading integrated with Technology, Math, Science, and Social Studies. After reading Three Cups of Tea, in groups of four, students will propose where to open a new school using Google Earth (see Figure 1). They must determine what infrastructure needs to be constructed in order to satisfy the building of this school (bridges, roads, paths, rest areas, and so forth). Google Earth has amazing viewing capabilities to assist with these predictions. Next, they must predict the projected costs, and as a class, decide on how to raise the money to contribute to this endeavor. As a culminating activity, they will present their proposal to the school and community stakeholders.

21st Century Assessment

At the moment, high-stakes standardized testing is utilized as the cardinal determinant of student mastery of a subject; however, these forms of assessments neither authentically evaluate critical thinking and problem solving, nor reflect how one creates and furnishes solutions in a real-world context. Whether they accurately reflect mastery of a concept is disputable and validity and reliability are often questionable [5]. A more precise and authentic method of assessing students for 21st century skills is via performance-based assessments like problem/project based learning (PBL) using rubrics to determine mastery. PBL incorporates all the 4 Cs (critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity) and involves investigating a real-world issue. In order to appropriately assess PBL outcomes, a rubric should be employed. Rubrics delineate and enumerate the specific tasks the student is to master and perform.

The current assessment strategies employed are not applicable to the types of evaluations a student will encounter in the "real world." Employers evaluate their employees according to:

  • Attributes, such as whether they are dependable, a team player, a critical thinker, problem solver, innovator, good communicator, adaptable, punctual, so forth;
  • Behaviors, in other words, how well they perform specific actions and arrive at goals. In most cases, this evaluation is based upon a scale of excellent/exceptional to not met/unsatisfactory delineating which areas they excel and which areas they need improvement; and
  • Results, namely, their accomplishments, i.e. the quantity and quality of work.

Notice, that these evaluations are based upon a rubric, not a multiple choice standardized test. If this is the popular method businesses implement to evaluate their employees, educational institutions should be utilizing them as well to critique student success and mastery. Questions a school should ask are, whether your school engages in PBL, are rubrics availed to evaluate student performance, do they reflect 21st century skills, and do teachers need training on how to execute PBL properly and write quality rubrics?


The 21st century is here; however, data suggests our students are not prepared to succeed in the 21st century workforce. Despite the dismal findings, actions can address and redress this challenge. School need to be visionaries and risk takers by redefining, reinventing, and rebuilding the curriculum, instruction, and assessment within their schools to reflect 21st century competencies and needs. School curricula should echo 21st century literacies and offer electives that are fashioned toward 21st century careers and skills, instruction should mirror best practices and lessons should cultivate 21st century skills, and assessments should resonate 21st century real world applications and evaluations, such as PBL utilizing performance-based assessments like rubrics. School leaders play a pivotal role in generating competent and capable global citizens. In order to triumph over this challenge, leaders must be empowered to become agents of change. The future of education is dependent upon those willing to embrace this challenge.

About the Author

Jennifer Levin-Goldberg, Ed.D, has been in education for 11 years serving as a middle and high school social studies teacher. She is currently an adjunct professor teaching graduate education courses at Grand Canyon University online. Levin-Goldberg has worn many hats in her career: an educator, Dean of Academics, instructional coach, and teacher mentor. She is a member of numerous professional organizations including: National Council of Social Studies, Association for Curriculum Developers, Social Science Education Consortium, National Social Studies Supervisors Association, College and University Faculty Assembly, and Kappa Delta Pi. To learn more about the author visit her website.


[1] The Corporate Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and Society for Human Resource Management. Are they ready to work? Employers' perspective on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce. 2006 [PDF].

[2] Wagner, C. G. Emerging careers and how to create them: 70 jobs in 2030. The Futurist 45, 1 (2011): 30-33.

[3] Webley, K. Nine jobs of the (near) future: Sustainability professional. TIME. November 16, 2011.

[4] Thomas, O. and Kelley, R. The 10 fastest growing jobs. CNNMoney. May 3, 2006.

[5] The National Center For Fair and Open Testing. The limits of standardized tests for diagnosing and assisting student learning. FairTest. August 2011.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/04 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2181207.2188348


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