Peer Review, Winter 2007

Winter 
2007, 
Vol. 9, 
No. 1
Peer Review

Twenty-First-Century Skills for Tomorrow’s Leaders

If only educators had crystal balls . . . if there were surefire ways to predict what learning styles or experiences would ensure that a student would do well in college or his or her career, then designing school programs would be easy.

Unfortunately, the “world series of life” is far more difficult to predict than the score of a baseball championship. Some students who take a general curriculum do as well as those in a program that identifies their specialty early. Some straight-A students find the freedom of college too tempting and lose their organizational skills, while some homeschoolers blossom in academia.

For almost a century, national testing agencies have boasted that their assessments have a high predictive validity for success in the first two years of college—and they have been right. High SAT or ACT scores correlate well to grades in the introductory language and mathematics courses in most colleges and universities, but that says far more about the way most first-year college courses are structured than about student success. Linguistic learners with good concentration skills and narrowly defined cultural literacy do well in the required introductory courses in most schools.

In most colleges, the rules for success change in the junior or senior year, where classes get smaller and students are required to do more research and writing. Once a student graduates, many careers present a totally new game entirely. Communication is still important, but having a great vocabulary is far less important than knowing when to say the right thing and when to keep quiet. On the job, individual content areas merge and there’s no “reference manual” to guide the problem-solving process. The sorts of team efforts that many colleges define as “cheating” become the best performance standards, and the creativity that wreaks havoc on a multiple-choice test is just what earns many employees an end-of-year bonus.

To the dismay of the testing agencies, many colleges have de-emphasized college entrance scores in favor of a multivariate selection matrix that includes grades, cocurricular activities, portfolios, and interviews. Experienced counselors get to know which colleges value the eclectic resume of the cocurricular king or queen, and which are more impressed by a portfolio of art or essays. The colleges are using their own models for predictive validity because they have their own data to show what makes a student successful in their programs.

Yet with all the assessment we do, there must be evidence of core abilities that contribute to success in college and career. Here’s what the data show.

First, basic skills can’t be denied. Several studies have shown that the closest correlate to college graduation from high school isn’t vocabulary or athletic letters, but successful completion of algebra II! It’s unclear whether that’s because of the logic necessary to succeed in three years of secondary mathematics or simply the persistence to achieve in a relatively boring subject.

The second component of success in college today is found in the cluster of technology skills often dubbed “twenty-first-century competencies.” These are the new tickets to success in college and career:

  • The ability to search, find, and evaluate information on the Web.
  • Web-style reading skills, which are very different from the sort of left-to-right sequential pattern that most older adults learned in school.
  • Communication skills, synchronous and asynchronous.
  • Multimedia production skills—the ability to integrate text, images, and video

Few of these key areas of preparation are parts of the standard college-preparatory curriculum, and there isn’t much time to add new classes to our all-too-short school days. So it’s absolutely vital that educators take a hard look at the experiences that are intrinsic to every course, from middle school through grade fourteen, to ensure an integrated and constantly updated sequence of twenty-first-century skills for tomorrow’s leaders. (For more information, see www.21stcenturyskills.org.)


Juliana Texley is an adjunct professor at Palm Beach Community College; former superintendent of schools for Anchor Bay, Michigan; and a twenty-five-year veteran classroom teacher.

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