I’ve been thinking about what’s really important, especially about what all kids should know and be able to do (WKSKABATD).  That word all is powerful and dangerous.  It makes standards an equity issue—all kids deserve to leave a system of public education with viable life options.  But it also requires us to be very thoughtful about whether all kids need to learn all of this stuff.
The Common Core made some progress in creating ‘clearer, fewer, higher’ standards, but there’s still way too much stuff.  The curriculum maps for English Language Arts released today are a bit too precious, a bit too literary—no technical reading or writing to be found.
An 11th grade unit on 18th century European lit emphasizes

“Observing narrative digressions, idiosyncrasies, exaggerations, and biases, they consider human, unpredictable, idiosyncratic aspects of storytelling.”

One of the underlying standards is:

RL.11-12.2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

Look for yourself.  It’s a classical curriculum, but does it really represent what all kids should know and be able to do?  I don’t think so.
Fordham funded CommonCore.org slammed Partnership for 21st Century Skills.  The P21 folks argue there’s some new stuff that is important, but they tried to avoid a fight by suggesting that kids need to know all that old stuff and some new stuff, “the fusion of the three Rs and four Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, communication and creativity and innovation).
I think we need to choose.  I think we need the courage to focus—to create a radical focus.  In order to dramatically increase the number of young people that have viable post high school options and are capable of getting/creating family wage employment, we will need to become radically focused on the dozen things that are really important, that really predict academic and professional success, and we’ll have to become much better at teaching those fundamental skills.
If there are a dozen keystone skills that over-predict success, I’m pretty sure these six are on that list:

  1. Read tough and technical passages with comprehension
  2. Write with concision and clarity
  3. Compute decimals and fractions with facility
  4. Gather evidence and make a case using probability & statistics
  5. Attack a problem like a team of scientists
  6. Crank like a coder

To the last point, by the time young people graduate from high school, they should be prepared to do sustained solitary work.  Students need the self-awareness to know how they learn, what conditions help them concentrate, and how to monitor their output for quality and productivity.
“I wonder if the 21st century could be marked by demanding of all students a far higher level of mastery of fewer things,” pondered a wise friend.   As we develop the next generation of assessments, will we have the courage to focus?  Will we at least allow schools with a strong and well-grounded hypothesis to focus?

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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