Using US Education to Spread 21st Century Competencies


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education took a bold step toward broadening the horizons of U.S. curricula, awarding more than $71 million in grants to initiatives dedicated to internationalizing American education.

Distributed through grant programs that operate under the International and Foreign Language Education Office, the funds will be dispersed among actors in the sphere of higher U.S. education, equipping beneficiaries with the skills they need to participate in an increasingly-globalized knowledge economy.

Only 16 percent of U.S. adults believe that a bachelor’s degree preps students “very well” for landing a financially-secure job in today’s labor market, according to the Pew Research Center. Those queried placed more importance on work training and individual will as skills and experiences needed to succeed.

The grants, if followed up by initiatives in work training, could potentially revitalize the contribution of higher U.S. education to the average student’s skill set. Targeted areas of improvement include languages, cultural awareness and international studies.

In a press release, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. delved deeper into the rationale behind the award. “The world is becoming more interconnected than ever before,” he said, “and our programs and grants are helping students to acquire the skills, knowledge and understanding they will need to compete on equal footing for 21st century careers.”

King Jr.’s language echoes that of Christina Russell, managing director at Policy Studies Associates, who recently outlined international strategies for cultivating 21st century skills in modern day learners.

On multiple occasions throughout her proposals, Russell invokes the concept of 21st century competencies, or the baseline skill set demanded by the job markets of today. Around the world, the term has entered the vocabulary of educators as a conversational building block for discussing contemporaneous shifts in labor, technology and even human interaction — and the ways in which education systems can adapt.

Systems are key to Russell’s vision of a 21st century competent world. Global leadership and other modern skill-building programs, both curricular and extracurricular, have long been part of the woodwork of sufficiently-resourced institutions. More often than not, however, such initiatives can only reach a finite proportion of the student population, limiting the scope of their impact from the get-go.

What’s needed now, according to Russell, is the creation of a system-level “comprehensive learning experience” in which 21st century competencies are fully integrated. Like most institutional retrofits, implementation will require extensive cross-sector cooperation. That means renegotiating of policy and long-held academic silos (like in-school and after-school programs), to be of benefit to all stakeholders involved.

The city of Ontario is among those which have begun to develop explicit frameworks for the integration of 21st century competencies; Singapore’s Ministry of Education has gone so far as to give them credence at a national level.

Furthering the spread of 21st century competencies is the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), a self-declared “catalyst for 21st century learning”.

The vision of P21 falls in step with both the aims of the U.S. Department of Education’s grants and Russell’s similarly-built strategies. At the top of its list of 21st century interdisciplinary themes — which, ideally, would be woven throughout a student’s academic career — is global awareness.

Teaching global awareness, P21 asserts, breeds understanding, a quality and skill that today’s learners and tomorrow’s workers must harness to connect and collaborate with their international peers.

The U.S. Department of Education’s multimillion-dollar commitment to this enterprise lends to the spread of global awareness a newfound urgency. It’s a sign that a global way of thinking must not only be encouraged, but ingrained i  modern day U.S. education.

Josephine Gurch

Photo: Flickr


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