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Between tasks in Algebra 2,Valari Jacobsen checks her grades in the class. Accessing her personal page on the school’s computer system, she sees she has a 71 percent in course content.
She knows she needs to step that up. But she’s doing really well in collaborating with her peers: Her score is 100 percent. And in oral communication, she has a 135 percent.
Unusual as it may seem, Jacobsen, an 18-year-old senior, is being evaluated on oral communication and on how well she works with other students in her mathematics class at Sacremento New Technology High School. Those interpersonal skills are among 10 “learning outcomes” students here must master as they progress through all their academic subjects. The outcomes are embedded in complex projects designed to build those skills as well as course-content knowledge.
The approach to learning is one response to national concern among policy and business leaders that teenagers are emerging from high school without the set of skills they need to thrive in college and the workplace. Some experts refer to those competencies as “soft” or “applied” skills. Some call them 21st-century skills.
In an increasingly global, technological economy, they say, it isn’t enough to be academically strong. Young people must also be able to work comfortably with people from other cultures, solve problems creatively, write and speak well, think in a multidisciplinary way, and evaluate information critically. And they need to be punctual, dependable, and industrious.
“This skills set is the ticket to economic upward mobility in the new economy,” says Ken Kay, the president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a Tucson, Ariz.-based coalition of business and education groups that advocates infusing such skills into education. Work Ethic Jacobsen’s grade depends not only on her mastery of algebraic concepts and applications, but also on her skill with technology, critical thinking, written and oral presentation, and whether she’s demonstrated a good work ethic on project teams with other students.