By Madelynn Coldiron
To have 21st century schools, school boards need to explore the answers to a two-part question, according to the keynote speaker at KSBA’s Summer Leadership Institute:
What essential skills do your students need for a 21st century education?
And what is your district doing, in a purposeful way, to equip them?
PHOTO: Ken Kay, the keynote speaker at the Summer Leadership Institute, jots down audience responses to his questions asking them to list societal changes over the past 25 years and the skills children need to deal with them.
“This is the perfect work for a school board member,” Kay said. “The more I talk to people about this issue, the more I’m convinced it’s the question for superintendents and school boards to focus on. If you’re in a moment of innovation, is your innovation agenda focused on this question – the delta between what competencies our kids need and what we as a school district are really delivering?”
Kay, of Tucson, Ariz, is the CEO of EdLeader21, a professional learning community of education leaders. More than 300 school board members, superintendents and others heard his presentation during the July 12-13 KSBA Summer Leadership Institute in Lexington.
To illustrate how districts may be lagging in preparing students, Kay recruited the audience in listing the ways in which society has changed in the last 25 years, coming up with more than a dozen answers ranging from technology to global competition to family structure.
What skills do students need to deal with all these changes? The answers from school board members were in line with what Kay calls “the four Cs.” These are critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.
Mastery of content in English, math, science and social studies is still needed, he said, but employers are looking to hire people who also have mastery in the four Cs.
The four Cs might be viewed as hard to implement, given the focus on new Common Core State Standards, but Kay said he believes the new standards do incorporate critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills. But districts shouldn’t stop there, he said. Other competencies to consider are global competitiveness, financial literacy, self-direction and tech literacy.
“You as school board members need to figure out what are we going to do to complement the Common Core. So what’s going on in most states is everybody’s got their hands full, ‘Gotta do the Common Core, gotta do the Common Core.’
“The great 21st-century districts are saying, ‘The Common Core and more,’” Kay said.
The flip side of the issue is how will districts prepare teachers to teach according to this new model, he said, adding that board members need to ask their administrative team whether teachers in their district are ready for this. “It’s another totally legitimate function of a school board member in this process,” Kay added.
He said other school districts around the country that have pursued this issue have hammered out a list of skills –outcomes – they want their students to have when they graduate.
“The starting point to my mind is a school board and a leadership team that really wants to do this,” he said.
Districts can opt for the four Cs as a starting point or build a model that fits their individual needs, Kay added. Many times districts that did this involved stakeholders in those discussions, in a dialogue “that is really, really powerful,” he said.
In bringing the community on board to help define the desired student skills, some districts have used multiple-stakeholder advisory groups, some had an extensive community engagement process and others operated unilaterally in the knowledge their communities trusted them to do what is right, he said. Once the competencies are identified, he added, it’s best to leave the discussion about how to make them happen to the educators.
But leadership by the board and superintendent on this issue is just one of the three keys to a 21st century education, according to Kay. The others are pedagogy (teaching) and a culture of continuous learning.
Strong leaders, a focus on pedagogy and a collaborative environment of continuous improvement are “the bedrock” of 21st-century schools, Kay said.