Do You Want a 21st Century school?
I have 20 years of experience inside the K12 system. I have been doing research on teaching, the educational system and 21st century skills for more than a decade.
I became well known in the NYC area because I was one of the first superintendents to implement a 21st century curriculum in my high school.
But all of that experience, knowledge and research only gets me half way there. What it does afford me is the opportunity to talk to thousands of people, from teachers to administrators and parents about school and education.
From all of those thousands of interactions it is very clear to me the most confusing dilemmas and challenges school board members and district leaders face is figuring out “How to Turn a School from an old, obsolete 19th Century curriculum into a 21st century School?”
If you are looking for answers to that challenge, then you are going to want to read this article.
World’s Leading Curriculum Design Expert
Before we can unravel the challenge, it’s important that you know where a lot of my research and understandings are based. As a 21st century educator, it is critical that we make research-based decisions. Therefore, which research I use plays a key role in whether or not my recommendations are sound or will even work in reality.
If you didn’t know Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs before, I hope that you will never forget her name after you read this article. Dr. Jacobs is the world’s foremost curriculum design expert. She earned her doctorate at Columbia University and was a former Professor at Teachers College at Columbia University.
Anyone in the field of education who is curious about the speciality of curriculum writing and design, will become very familiar with Dr. Jacobs research and body of work very quickly. If there were rock-stars in education, Dr. Jacobs would be at the top of the list.
19th Century Curriculum
Understanding the field of education and how schools work is a very confusing subject. Because of that widespread confusion, engaging in any debate about educational quality doesn’t last very long before most people get upset and just give up.
I recognize that fact. So I am going to try and take baby steps in explaining this extremely important subject. Ultimately, we are talking about how to prepare kids for the 21st century. This is very important to hundreds of millions of people.
Part of the confusion began after our Congress and President George W. Bush passed the law “No Child Left Behind” in 2002. I recognize that there are a lot of hurt feelings surrounding this law, but it’s in the past, let’s move forward and understand where we are today.
What “No Child Left Behind” did was create common core standards and give Americans a false sense of security that someone was “watching” school quality and ensuring that kids didn’t fall through the cracks. If we look at the President’s own words in 2006, we can understand the world better in the early 2000s.
And so the No Child Left Behind says, look, we trust the local folks. I don’t want Washington, D.C. running the schools. That’s up to the people in the states and the local community. I’ve been a strong believer in local control of schools. But I also believe it makes sense to ask the question, whether or not a child can read, write, and add and subtract. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
No, Mr. President, it’s not too much to ask.
The problem is “No Child Left Behind” made the K12 system extremely confusing for everyone. It wasn’t just parents who had no idea if their child was doing well in school, but the law also kept teachers and principals in the dark as well.
The reason school became so confusing is because no one in 2002 or 2006 understood what common core standards were or what they did. Even in 2022, people believe common core standards can do things — that they honestly cannot do.
The one myth that you need to be aware of is that common core standards never expire. That is simply untrue. According to Dr. Jacobs, it is not only possible, but very likely that some of the standards written in 2002 have become stale, obsolete or completely irrelevant to learning in 2022.
Usually when I let people know standards can expire, a light bulb goes off in their head. It’s the first “ah-ha moment” that people have.
The fact is we are much smarter today than we were 20 years ago. We have 20 years of research and data to tells us not all common core standards work anymore.
Basic Skills Education
The purpose of school should be to prepare kids for the 21st century. Most people would agree with that statement. But if you agree, then you might want to know that common core standards only address basic skills education.
What are basic skills?
Basic skills are learning how to read, write and basic math, such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, doing fractions and order of operations.
When our school system was designed in the late 1800s (the 19th Century) this was the goal of school. Students have been going to school to gain a basic skills education. And that was in the actual language of the No Child Left Behind act. Students were guaranteed to receive a basic skills education.
This sounds great! Who would argue against a basic skills education?
Until you realize that a 19th century basic skills education will not prepare kids for the 21st century.
The Big Mistake
Here’s where non-educators and some educators get really confused. How can you prepare kids for the 21st century if they don’t know how to read, write and do basic skills math?
This is where the big mistake happened.
In order to create a 21st century learning environment and build a 21st century school district, you need to remember there are 12 grades of school. Kids don’t learn everything they need in one grade, it happens over the entire K12 system.
This is where most people overlook reality. Do students need to learn how to read, write and do basic skills math? The answer is obvious. Yes, kids need a basic skills education as a foundation for 21st century learning. When a district leader or a school board member wants to create a modern school district, they need to recognize that basic skills and common core standards only work in elementary school.
Kids in PreK through 5th grade should be learning reading, writing and basic skills math. Elementary school students and teachers should be the only people that deal with standards and standardized testing.
This is only a controversial position to take because 99% of people do not understand standards, basic skills learning and how to prepare kids for the 21st century.
But if you continue to read this article, you will be exposed to all the research you need to fully understand what a modern school and disrict needs to look like.
21st Century Curriculum Design
What does Dr. Jacobs’ research say about designing a 21st century curriculum?
Before I describe her recommendation for 21st century design, let me provide you with her definition of a 19th century curriculum first.
According to Dr. Jacobs, a 19th Century curriculum is based on single-core subjects, such as English, Math, Science and Social Studies and the teachers of those subjects teach single-core ideas: English, Math, Science and Social Studies.
I’m hoping that made sense and you make the connection. Just to be clear, a 19th century curriculum has single-core subjects that focus completely on one single-core idea. In other words, English class is for English. Math class is for Math and so on. In the 19th century, it’s easy to identify what class you are in just by the standards the teacher is following.
This is partly why so many people got easily confused by the introduction of standards into the school system. It seemed like a great idea at the time, but in hindsight and with quality research what we can see is that the standards hold back student achievement in 6th grade through 12th grade.
The standards themselves limit student growth and learning. This is even more obvious when most of the public wants schools to focus on higher order critical thinking skills, like imagination, and creativity and building new things. The whole rise in STEM and STEAM programs is a rebellion against the limited 19th century single-core idea.
But before we get too excited about STEM and STEAM, let’s see what Dr. Jacobs says about 21st century curriculum design. According to her, a 21st century curriculum uses single-core subjects like, English, Math, Science and Social Studies, but in a much different fashion.
Instead of English teachers teaching English they teach a cross-curricular class. The same with math, science and social studies teachers.
Can you anticipate the problem that presents?
Like I said earlier, all of my experience and research and expertise has given me the opportunity to speak with thousands of educators and non-educators and as soon as I mention cross-curricular learning, the wheels fall off the bicycle.
If English teachers are not supposed to teach English, then what should they be teaching?
Pause and Reflect
At this point we are really deep into curriculum theory and design. In fact, you have just learned more about curriculum than the vast majority of educators in the United States know or understand.
If you want to stop, I don’t blame you.
But if you truly want to know how to build a 21st century school and how to completely modernize your district so you can actually prepare your students for the 21st century, then we must press forward.
Making a Huge Breakthrough
Before we can go one step deeper, I need to make sure we are on the same page. You know that a 19th century curriculum is based on single-core subjects and ideas. If you are observing a district that means the elementary schools should be teaching English, Math, Science and Social Studies classes based on standards in English, Math, Science and Social Studies.
Looking at the district from a bird’s eye view, every elementary school in America is now a basic skills academy. Students who enter in PreK or Kindergarten begin to learn reading, writing and basic skills and when they graduate and finish the 5th grade — they all have basic skills abilities.
At this point, you have a 6th grader with basic skills and abilities, so what should they learn next?
If we apply Dr. Jacobs theory of 21st century curriculum design, this becomes the most important question to answer. English, Math, Science and Social Studies teachers need to teach something they can do collaboratively. That is the foundation of a cross-curricular theory. All the single-core subjects need to teach cross-curricular ideas.
Did the lightbulb go on in your head?
If not, you are right there. Let me circle back around the concept. English, Math, Science and Social Studies should not be teaching students limited single-core ideas such as English, Math, Science and Social Studies. Instead, students need to learn ideas that all the teachers can collaborate on.
And this is where the breakthrough happens.
The “WHAT” schools should be teaching starting in the 6th grade and carrying through to high school graduation are 21st century skills.
And as you will read, these skills allow for cross-curricular collaboration of all subject area teachers.
Success and Results
At the very beginning of this article, I mentioned that I became well known in the NY and NJ area because I was one of the first superintendents to implement a 21st century curriculum in my high school.
You might be wondering, how well did my students do when they stopped learning single-core ideas in their classes?
Thousands of students went through my K12 program, but I want to highlight one student’s success in particular. It’s important for you to fully understand the context, why I would make such a bold move and reject the old 19th century model in favor of this innovative 21st century approach?
And the reason was simple. My students were behind the 8-ball. Most of my students came from the poorest neighborhoods in New Jersey. Some of my students didn’t have any family at all, in fact they were wards of the state, and all of my students were classified with disabilities. The only reason they became my students was because the public, charter and private schools their parents originally sent them to, kicked them out.
From an opportunity, economic and practical standpoint, my students had no options. A 19th century basic skills education wasn’t going to be enough to help them change their life trajectory. That’s the simple and honest truth. My students needed a modern and futuristic education that would give them advantages over every other high school and college graduate.
This innovative curriculum gave one of my students the skills he needed to start his own car maintenance business at the age of 23. He didn’t have a college degree and he didn’t have startup capital to launch a traditional business, but he had rock-solid 21st century skills that allowed him to seize an opportunity when it presented itself. Without this futuristic curriculum, we would not be marveling at his achievements today.
Using 21st Century Skills Research
The only thing missing from this equation is “what” my students learned and “what” teachers in 6th through 12th grade should be teaching in school.
We know all teachers should collaborate, we know all teachers should be teaching the same ideas, but the question has come down to “what are those ideas?”
This is where we turn our attention to Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce. The reason we want to focus on Georgetown is because in 2020 researchers from there published a study that outlines the five 21st century skills that fill in the gap of — what schools should teach.
The funny thing is that if you are reading this article, you are learning about research that virtually no one knows about. It’s quite shocking to me as a researcher that a study published by Georgetown University, one of the elite academic institutions in the world could not drum up any publicity or fanfare for this report called “Workplace Basics.”
Consider yourself well-read and learned at this point. By knowing this research, you are vaulting yourself into an elite class of scholars.
Here’s what the study concluded.
The researchers analyzed the entire US Economy and the entire labor market. They collected data from every sector and looked at similarities and differences of workers in every type of job across the entire nation.
What they ended up finding was that five specific worker skills emerged as the most common among the highest earners. Yes, workers that were making the most money in the economy, workers that were getting promoted the most and workers that were getting the most frequent promotions all had the same five skills.
I run an education think tank, so for my purposes, I am labeling these five skills as 21st Century skills. (The Georgetown researchers had no idea what they discovered.) To keep things as simple as possible, I am going to list them for you:
- Team Building
- Problem Solving
This was the breakthrough research Dr. Jacobs needs to make her 21st century curriculum design work properly. English teachers cannot collaborate with math teachers because English and math standards have nothing in common. But when you look at this list of five 21st century skills, you begin to see they paint a different picture of learning.
How would an English teacher tackle the idea of leadership, team building, problem solving, sales and communications? Now think about how a math teacher would approach those skills? And then a science and social studies teacher?
Not only does it open up limitless possibilities in the classroom, but it also provides a perfect framework for collaboration.
For example, if the English teacher wants to teach Shakespeare, they could teach the students about how Shakespeare communicated his ideas and stories and became the greatest influencer in the world. But over in the social studies teachers class, the students could simultaneously learn about the era in history in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. What was happening in society at the same time?
The bottom line is that this is the answer to the question, “What should schools be teaching students?”
Developing a 21st Century School
You should feel really confident with your knowledge and understanding of curriculum design and what students should be learning in your new school. But there’s still one more question to answer, “how do you develop a 21st century school?”
I have a small team of teachers, administrators and parents, but it’s not big enough to make BIG change happen. That’s why I have been writing and publishing a lot of articles and posts on social media in the last few weeks.
Everyone needs to be aware of the fact the K12 system collapsed in 2020. If you are wondering why things seem more chaotic and less structured than before, it’s because there is nothing left to the system. Anyone that protests schools and teachers is screaming into thin air.
Teachers go to work everyday without any protection. The school system was barely holding on for dear life before the Pandemic, but after March 2020 when all schools closed their doors, the House of Cards collapsed.
Since you want to know the truth, it’s important to point out that the system fell on top of teacher’s shoulders. Since 2018, over 1 million teachers have quit the profession. And according to the latest teacher surveys conducted by the NEA and EdWeek, nearly 38% of current teachers say they “might” quit the profession they love. (They don’t want to quit, but they might have to.)
If you are a compassionate person, you should have empathy for teachers. I recognize it may be difficult for some due to the misinformation and slanted angles of news stories and articles, but I am a 20-year veteran K12 insider and I enjoy being transparent.
Call to Action
Where do you fit into transforming schools into 21st century learning environments? The answer to that question is your choice. If you are a teacher, administrator or parent, you can decide to join my small team right now. We need everyone to show support and join us in building schools of the future.
There is no system to overthrow — it has already collapsed. At this point, all we are proposing is what to build in its place.
We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to get this right.
If you want to show support and join this team, hit the follow button on this account and find me on Twitter and follow @theschooldoc.
My hope is that you feel inspired by this article. The point was to present to you the facts and also the research you need to make a truly informed decision about the direction of school. Every student needs to learn 21st century skills. Heck, you need to learn 21st century skills if you want to earn more than $15 an hour or get out of a dead-end job.
I developed an online school to teach people 21st century skills because the K12 system forgot about you. I am working tirelessly to get those courses off the ground, but if you want to learn, write down which 21st century skills you want to learn the most in the comments. The skills that have the most comments will be the ones that I target first. I will write more targeted articles about those skills and I will launch courses designed specifically for you.
My other hope is that you don’t want to abandon teachers. In order to have the modern and futurisitc 21st century schools we dream about, we are going to need all of our current teachers. It doesn’t work without them.
About 6-months ago, I wrote an article how my staff only worked 45-hours per week. You can search my account for that article if you are curious, but the main idea is that I eliminated cut my teachers work week from 60–70 hours down to only 45.
I was able to do that because I introduced a 3-part system that saves teachers on average 200 hours of lesson planning time that teachers do in their “personal time.” Just to be clear, 200 hours is the same as 5 full weeks of work. If the average American worker only gets 3 weeks of vacation time, can you see why every teacher feels burnt out? They are spending late nights, weekends and even their vacations keeping up with lesson planning. When you work 7 days a week, 12–14 hours days — it’s bound to catch up with you.
It took a lot of effort on my part to get the 3-part system up and running online, but it’s now available for any teacher to use. If you are a teacher, know a teacher, or care about a teacher, please send them this link. The first page collects emails, (full disclosure), but then the teacher can read about the entire 3-part system in full. And if you thought this article was comprehensive, wait till you read my description of the 3-part system. (I don’t like to leave any mysteries.)
Teachers are Burnt Out Because...
Teachers work approximately 200 hours of unpaid time every single school year. Based on the average teacher salaries…
I know some of my articles are long. I get that, but I hope you begin to see this account as a place of true learning. Where else are you going to read about actual research and then have it tie back to reality?
I want to see everyone succeed and that can only happen if you know 21st century skills. The research from Georgetown proves that is true.
If you want to get involved, here’s what you can do:
- Follow this account and sign up for email alerts
- Find me on Twitter — at “theschooldoc”
- Follow the link to my website and help save a teacher from 5 weeks of work writing lesson plans and forcing teachers to make the worst decision of their life — quitting teaching