Education for the 21st Century

Reading Time: 5 minutes

[box class=”grey_box”]An article in Council Quarterly, the Newsletter of the Council of Chief State School Officers, on states’ challenges to drive public education to meet the demands of an emerging economy.[/box]

We are well into the 21st century, yet our high schools remain organized on 20th century needs and expectations. CCSSO President David Driscoll (MA) issued a challenging question to his fellow chiefs in 2005: What can we do at the state level to ensure all of our children graduate from high school prepared to succeed in the 21st century?

Driscoll’s question is complex. It requires us to understand the recent fundamental shifts in our economy and devise a new way of educating all children to succeed in this new economy—an economy so new that we still barely understand it. It also requires us to understand the structures and patterns within the modern high school and how they hold us back from our new aspirations, and to see how the changes we posit to these structures and patterns cut against many of our deepest held beliefs about high school.

Finally, Driscoll challenges us to think hard about the opportunities and limitations that state education agencies (SEAs) have in supporting reform and the unique role that the state can play within a decentralized, yet highly standardized, system of education.

This challenge did not arise from a vacuum. Issues related to high school reform and 21st century expectations have been key themes for CCSSO’s membership meetings over the past several years. In 2003, under the direction of CCSSO President Mike Ward (NC), our priority theme was Seeing it Through. We studied high school reform at the 2003 Summer Institute (SI) and Annual Policy Forum (APF) where we had Ronald Heifetz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government help us understand leadership challenges in high school redesign.

In 2004, under the leadership of President Ted Stilwill (IA), we opened our SI by looking at the underlying reasons for the changes we called for. Robert Reich, former secretary of labor and current professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University, taught us about the structural changes to our economy and how knowing about them can help us change our role as educators. At the 2004 APF, David Gergen of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government built on those lessons by providing a political context for thinking about the changing economy.

It was those conversations—and Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat (2005)—that shaped our focus. We organized the 2005 SI on the premise that our expectations for student performance are too often inadequate and, therefore, we need to consider the following questions:

  • What do students really need to know and be able to do in the new economy?
  • What does learning theory tell us education must do to support them?


Robert Reich taught us that at one time in our economy, work that was routinized and standardized could support a middle class. Routinized work helped factories flourish—and with them, factory workers. Over time however, that type of work has diminished due to globalization, technological advances, and demographic shifts. Instead of standardized tasks, workers must solve novel problems and compete against workers worldwide. Reich warns us that to prepare young people to succeed in this economy, we must provide them a different set of skills than the ones around which we have organized education.

The World is Flat extends Reich’s lessons, giving specificity to the economic shift. We understand better now than ever how the changing nature of the workforce creates new demands on our education system. Average workers must be able to innovate, think critically, solve novel problems, utilize technology, and communicate well. In this new economy, we still rely on our education system to deliver the promise of equal opportunity that is the hallmark of American democracy.


At this year’s SI, John Bransford, professor at the University of Washington, connected the needs of the economy to instruction that “invite[s] innovation in order to work smarter and more efficiently (which makes learning more motivating, relevant, and effective).” He discussed how instruction that harnesses innovation and efficiency in learning requires student work that goes in cycles of action, feedback, and invention. Students become prepared to learn by inventing, testing, and refining. This leads to a new view of instructional expertise and has implications for assessment.

Bransford’s presentation was informed by research he and his colleagues reviewed in How People Learn: Bridging Research & Practice (1999), written by the National Research Council and edited by M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino. Three key lessons about learning and teaching surfaced from the presentation:

  • Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test, but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.
  • To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.
  • A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

Unfortunately, high schools by and large have not been designed around this understanding of learning.


To answer this question, CCSSO once again engaged the Regional Educational Laboratories to help study emerging frameworks and priorities for high school change and proposals for federal, state, and local redesign. We identified four key state policy areas that can help improve high school student achievement: aligning and integrating systems, engaging stakeholders, building educator capacity, and evaluating results. Our investigations into the state role in high school redesign brought us right back to standards-based reform as an approach to state education policy.

At least two facts give us confidence that standards-based reform can bring success in the knowledge economy. First, we have seen improvements in educational outcomes at the elementary level, many of which can be tracked to standards-based reform. We are only now turning our focus to high school. It does not require a leap of faith to believe the tools of standards-based reform that helped in the elementary grades may get us to where we need to be at the high school level.

Second, using Heifetz’s terminology, much of our work in high school reform has been “technical” to date; we have only begun to identify the “adaptive” challenges. Technical challenges are those for which we have the knowledge, skills, information, and ability to solve. Adaptive challenges are those that require a change of heart. Adaptive leadership helps people to identify and address the changes that they resist, helps them through times of stress and disequilibrium toward better outcomes for all. If we pay attention to adaptive challenges in high school redesign, standards-based reform may yet provide the road map to success.


Many more speakers, facilitators, and program collaborators worked in conjunction with CCSSO’s membership and staff at the 2005 SI. CCSSO will rely on these leaders as we continue our redesign efforts. CCSSO is in the process of formalizing a statement on high school redesign and 21st century expectations. Formalizing that policy statement will be a key outcome of the 2005 APF and Business Meeting. In the meantime, the public can access background readings and handouts provided at the 2005 SI by going to

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