Business leaders are intensifying their call for schools to retool their curriculum. A new report makes a strong economic case for why students must learn key 21st-century skills. And Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has highlighted an education plan that addresses the need to meet rising global challenges.

As of press time, notably absent in these discussions has been any acknowledgment by Republican presidential candidate John McCain of the need for schools to teach 21st-century skills, or the role technology can play in doing so.

McCain’s presidential platform does address educational technology, but only in the context of providing more choices for students and their parents. For instance, he says he would "reform" the Enhancing Education Through Technology program–the largest single source of federal funding for school technology–by reallocating $500 million in existing federal funds to build new virtual schools and support the development of online course offerings for students.

"These courses may be for regular coursework, for enhancement, or for dual enrollment into college," the McCain campaign’s web site says.

In addition, McCain has proposed creating two new ed-tech programs. The first would allocate $250 million through a competitive grant program to help states expand online learning opportunities. States could use these funds to build virtual math and science academies to help expand the availability of AP math, science, and computer-science courses, for example.

The second would offer $250 million in "Digital Passport Scholarships" to help students pay for online tutors or enroll in virtual schools. Low-income students would be eligible to receive up to $4,000 to enroll in an online course, SAT or ACT prep course, credit recovery, or tutoring services offered by a virtual provider. The federal Education Department would award the funds to a national scholarship administrator, who would manage student applications and evaluate providers.

While these proposals could increase students’ access to high-quality educational content, including courses in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines, they don’t address what both business and education leaders say is a fundamental need for schools to overhaul their core curriculum in the face of new global challenges.

For the United States to remain globally competitive, U.S. schools must teach 21st-century skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and innovation within the context of the core curriculum, says a growing chorus of experts.

At the annual Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco this summer, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett warned that if the U.S. doesn’t invest more money in research or redesign its schools and classrooms, its education system will fail. (See "Intel chair calls for ed reform, STEM innovation")

And earlier this month, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills–a coalition of business and civic leaders that aims to improve U.S. education–released a report arguing that U.S. schools must teach 21st-century skills for the nation to remain globally competitive. The report notes that the economy has changed significantly in the last 30 years, and information products and services now account for 63 percent of the country’s output (see "Report: Retool instruction, or U.S. will fail"). The message: If we don’t align our curricula with the skills today’s students need to succeed, our nation is in trouble.

Speaking at Stebbins High School near Dayton, Ohio, on Sept. 9, Obama picked up this theme, noting that U.S. students are being outperformed by their peers in other countries on international benchmarks.

"Without a workforce trained in math, science and technology, and the other skills of the 21st century, our companies will innovate less, our economy will grow less, and our nation will be less competitive. If we want to out-compete the world tomorrow, we must out-educate the world today," Obama said.

He added: "While technology has transformed just about every aspect of our lives–from the way we travel, to the way we communicate, to the way we look after our health–one of the places where we’ve failed to seize its full potential is in the classroom.

"Imagine a future where our children are more motivated because they aren’t just learning on blackboards, but on new whiteboards with digital touch screens; where every student in a classroom has a laptop at [his or her] desk; where [students] don’t just do book reports but design PowerPoint presentations; where they don’t just write papers, but they build web sites; where research isn’t done just by taking a book out of the library, but by eMailing experts in the field; and where teachers are less a source of knowledge than a coach for how best to use it and obtain knowledge. By fostering innovation, we can help make sure every school in America is a school of the future.

"And that’s what we’re going to do when I’m president. We will help schools integrate technology into their curriculum, so we can make sure public school students are fluent in the digital language of the 21st-century economy. We’ll teach our students not only math and science, but teamwork and critical thinking and communication skills, because that’s how we’ll make sure they’re prepared for today’s workplace."

The Obama campaign subsequently released more details about how it proposes to address this issue.

Obama proposes creating a $500 million matching Technology Investment Fund that would build on existing federal ed-tech programs to help ensure that technology is fully integrated throughout U.S. schools.

According to the Obama campaign, this fund would:

– Help integrate technology throughout classrooms, so innovative learning technologies such as simulations, interactive games, and intelligent tutors can help improve the quality of instruction;

– Develop better student assessments that allow teachers and parents to identify and focus on students’ individual needs and talents throughout the school year;

– Create new technology-based curricula with leaders in the technology industry, so schools can create courses that develop students’ technology skills through project-based learning; and

– Use technology to help teachers work collaboratively with their peers across the country and provide more personalized assistance to students.

National ed-tech organizations declined to compare the Obama and McCain education plans, citing their need to remain nonpartisan as a result of their nonprofit 501(c)(3) tax status.

But Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, said she was "very pleased to see Obama’s plan highlight ed tech."

"We look forward to discussing [with both candidates] the potential for technology … to serve as a catalyst for transforming our schools for the 21st century," Wolf said.

Links:

Obama ’08

John McCain 2008

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the “ Creating the 21 st Century Classroom ”resource center. Preparing today’s youth to succeed in the digital economy requires a new kind of teaching and learning. Skills such as global literacy, computer literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation have become critical in today’s increasingly interconnected workforce and society–and technology is the catalyst for bringing these changes into the classroom. Go to Creating-the-21st-century-classroom


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