Youth Today: 21st Century Skills and Indicators

By Karen Pittman, July 2003

We're getting close.

On June 5, 50 hand-picked researchers, practitioners and policy experts from academia and youth development gathered in Washington at the behest of the U.S. Department of Education to prioritize youth performance indicators used to assess after-school programs the department funds. The stakes were high. The discussions were surprisingly good.

Everyone at the After-School Summit understood that indicators of improved academic achievement are important for after-school work. But everyone was also aware of the ongoing tension between measuring academics vs. other forms of youth achievement, such as life skills. Everyone, especially practitioners, hoped it was possible to find common ground.

My small group seemed typical. Two committed practitioners — a principal and a program trainer — expressed early concerns. They came convinced their programs help youth do better in school and wanted to see their contributions documented. But they bristled at the idea that every indicator had to be screened for a connection to academics.

Our brainstorming session netted more than 50 outcome indicators, ranging from reduced violent episodes to increased enthusiasm about learning. Some were specifically about school, such as attendance. Others focused on nonacademic goals, such as interacting with youth from other backgrounds. The group felt good about the breadth of those indicators.

Then came the hard part: picking just 10.

The mood changed. Throughout the room you could feel the pain that comes from having someone take the essence of what you do and strip it down to something far too simple or superficial. With a stalemate looming, I suggested we draw the middle ground by underlining the key words in the lists we generated.

Those key words formed a collective wisdom, which clustered into six broad outcome areas: basic needs (such as safety), attendance, behavior, attitudes toward learning, achievement and involvement in decision making.

The connections became clear. Academic achievement is dependent on engagement, motivation, behavior and attendance. All of these are dependent on youth feeling safe and supported and are reflected in literature on academic achievement, and achievement in general.

But the academic elephant remained in the room. Was the task to select an "academic" indicator within each of the six outcome areas? Our group's collective answer: No.

We decided that after-school programs should first define their full set of goals in each outcome area and then agree to be measured against academic indicators — but only after they create program activities connected to those goals. For example, a school-based program might select both "sustained program attendance" and "increased school attendance" as indicators. A community-based program might do so only if it had a clear link to school. Light bulbs went off.

As it turned out, each small group had similar conclusions. The tension between academics and youth development did not materialize. The groups affirmed the notion that both goals are equally attainable. Education Secretary Roderick Paige, Mott Foundation president Bill White and actor-turned-after-school-advocate Arnold Schwarzenegger announced our progress in a press conference immediately following the summit.

This was not the only press conference in town to promote a vision of academics and youth development outcomes. Late last month, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills — which included the Department of Education and such technology gurus as the AOL Time Warner Foundation, Cisco Systems and Dell Computer Corporation — was scheduled to release the report "Learning for the 21st Century." The report is focused primarily on schools, but advocates both academic and life skills.

"Standards, assessments and accountability measures...are the starting point for strong schools and student achievement," the report says. "To complement these efforts, we need an increased emphasis on the additional knowledge and skills students will need for the 21st Century."

A 21st Century education, the report says:

emphasizes learning skills - information and communication; thinking and problem-solving, interpersonal and self-directional skills;

uses 21st century information, communication and technology tools to develop learning skills;

links academic content to the 21st Century context through relevant real world examples, applications and experiences inside and outside of school;

teaches new 21st Century content, such as global awareness, and literacy in economics, civics and health; and

uses 21st Century assessment methodologies for testing knowledge and improving teaching and learning.

I'm glad the report acknowledges that supporting this broadened definition of learning will require schools to enlist the help of strong partners such as community-based organizations. The deeper value of this document, however, is the call for schools to broaden their definition of student outcomes and to revamp their practices for teaching and assessing outcomes.

Knowing that the Department of Education is trying to help schools bring teaching and learning into the 21st Century is further reassurance that this balanced vision will be applied to its after-school programs as well.

Pittman, K. (2003, July). "21st Century Skills and Indicators." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in
Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
July 1, 2003
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