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Brace yourself! We have a currently popular (notice the term new was not used) task force report on 21st century skills needed by students in order to graduate from high school and/or college career ready. The claim is that the focus has been in meeting the high standards (knowledge based) in core academic areas (MCAS) at the expense of “softer skills”, which will be defined momentarily.

Maura Banta, chairman of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (formerly the Department of Education and DOE), and Gerald Chertavian, chairman of the just-released Task Force on 21st Century Skills, states in a preamble to the specific recommendations that “our focus must shift to providing all students with both academic knowledge and skills … and we must collaborate to build a work force that can compete locally and internationally.” How can we debate this? Haven’t we been doing this?

The “softer skills,” which might better be termed essential skills or survival skills, which the report alludes to, includes technological aptitude to solve complex problems, global awareness, improved media literacy (reading analysis and writing skills), team building, critical thinking (logic) and self-direction. What’s soft about those skills and resources?

The disturbing fact is that by finding it necessary to prepare such a report is to admit our lack of commitment, attention, progress and a plan to seamlessly integrate these essential skills into our academic curriculum. It’s alarming to think that people think such focus is in its infancy. The 1991 Department of Labor Scans (Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills) identified these areas as necessary to be addressed as part of “educational reform”. Who is responsible for this neglect?

Lana Jackman, who chairs the National Forum on Information Literacy, cites with regard to mainstreaming these soft skills, “Our current economic crisis is an illustrious example of the need for these skills.” We might add that a focus on business ethics would serve a critical need as well.

Across the world in places such as Singapore, China, Australia, Peru and Chile, leaders have already recognized the need to boost these “people skills” to move their economics and society. Investments in new curriculum and professional development have been underway for years.

Lost in the dark cloud of criticism of real educational reform on a national level is the innovation, creativity and ambition of a few of our individual schools – especially the progressive technical vocational high schools and well-based charter schools.

Incorporating the so-called “soft skills” into the learning process is not new or foreign to schools like the Devens Parker Charter School. Tom Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has written a new book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survivor Skills and has featured the Parker School as a beacon and model of a school program that is responsive and relevant to societal and economic change.

Students conceptualize, have depth of knowledge, communicate with each other, think, take risks, collaborate and demonstrate hands-on entrepreneurship. Encouraged to be curious, students are guided to “do a few things beautifully”, Principal Teri Shrader was recently quoted as saying.

We congratulate Parker for the affirmation by author Wagner of the work they do.

Parker was founded in 1995 as an Essential School based on the principles established by our neighbor (Harvard) and educational authority and theoretician, Ted Sizer.

Although not referenced in Wagner’s new publication, another blossoming Essential School is the North Central Charter Essential School in Fitchburg. This writer assisted their program occasionally over the last few years and can attest to the seamless curriculum which frames an academic base with the tools (“soft skills”) to “think, care and act” in a new society.

Of course, these faculties and administrations are not constrained by collective bargaining harnesses and union objections to change.

“Every act of kindness is an act of greatness.” — Mel King, Boston political leader

Tom Casey is an educational consultant and a former secondary school administrator.