21st Century Skills and Indicators

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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 that the department funds. The stakes were high.

Everyone at the After-School Summit understood that indicators of improved academic achievement are important for after-school work. But everyone was 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. You could feel the pain that comes from having someone take the essence of what you do and strip it down to something 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 youths feeling safe and supported, and are reflected in literature on academic achievement.

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 goals in each area, then agree to be measured against academic indicators – but only after the programs create 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.

Each small group reached 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 news conference immediately following the summit.

This was not the only news conference in town to promote a vision of academic and youth development outcomes. Late last month, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills – which included the Department of Education and technology gurus such as the AOL Time Warner Foundation, Cisco Systems and Dell Computer – was scheduled to release a report, “Learning for the 21st Century.” The report focuses on schools, but it 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 contemporary information, communication and technology tools to develop learning skills;

• links academic content to context through relevant real-world examples, applications and experiences inside and outside of school;

• teaches new content, such as global awareness and literacy in economics, civics and health;

• and uses modern 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 partners such as community-based organizations. The document’s deeper value lies in its 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 provides reassurance that this vision will be applied to its after-school programs as well.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. This article and links to related readings are available at