Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Taking the Initiative: A Sweeping Agenda for Twenty-First-Century Change

How a forward-thinking campaign is transforming West Virginia public schools.

December 3, 2008

In 2005, West Virginia, saddled with the nation's highest rate of adult illiteracy and lowest per capita income, recognized that its schools urgently needed an overhaul if its students weren't going to fall off the charts in the fast-moving age of digital technology. No Child Left Behind had brought more equity to the classroom, but the state's top educators felt that the pressure to optimize test scores had led to sacrifices in creativity and innovation. A bold new approach to learning was needed to prepare students for a contemporary job market that favored quick-thinking technical expertise over the ability to retain and recite rote facts and figures.

To that end, the state superintendent of schools, Steven Paine, introduced a sweeping agenda: the 21st Century Learning Initiative. Developed by an advocacy organization, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which works with thirty-eight leading American tech companies, the program was designed to inculcate students not only with modern technical skills and a facility for critical thinking but also with the requisite tools for successful citizenship in the global village.

The initiative called for an across-the-board revamping of the very culture of the state's classrooms. "We're not tinkering around the edges here -- we are completely transforming every aspect of our system," says Paine. "To prepare our kids for the global digital world, we needed to first raise the level of cognitive demand in our standards, and then we needed to start teaching the skill sets that the corporate members of the partnership -- the Microsofts, the Intels, the Ciscos, the Dells, and the Apples -- had clearly identified."

Those skills, he says, include creative and innovative problem solving, good written communication, an ability to integrate tech skills into everyday tasks, and economic and civic literacy. "If you looked into our classrooms today, you would see a transformation," Paine says proudly. "You would see project-based-learning scenarios. You would see kids utilizing technology in groups, solving problems together." And assessments of progress are now garnered not only through testing but also by more subtle indicators such as the quality of the portfolios the students keep and the success of their projects.

To bring the initiative online statewide required an intensive three-year campaign. The state revamped its content standards and directed its standardized-test makers to tweak the annual WESTEST (West Virginia'sanswer to NCLB) to measure the new skills. Instructional videos, teacher leadership institutes, and the state's Teach 21 Web site help teachers and administrators revamp curricula. Seventeen high schools serve as demonstration models.

Simultaneously, the state legislature committed $20 million a year to educational technology, $15 million of which goes directly to counties to buy laptops, interactive whiteboards, and other equipment. State officials expect that funding to continue in future years. Aside from the gadgetry, the West Virginia Department of Education has no estimate of the initiative's total cost. The investment has mainly come in the currency of time: that of state officials, politicians, businesspeople, and, now more than ever, teachers.

"Because we knew we had to change everything on a systemic level, we needed to find a way to reach the 20,000 teachers in our state," says Liza Cordeiro, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education. The solution was to train a core group of teachers who could then return to their home counties and share their knowledge. Paine's staff also encouraged education colleges around the state to integrate these skills into their curricula so that new teachers could hit the ground running.

"I'm excited, really excited," says Rachel Hull, a Milken Educator Award winner and a veteran teacher at Buffalo Elementary School, in Putnam County. "I've been an involved advocate of 21st Century Skills since it was introduced. I've heard all the arguments against it, but I think most parents, and most people who are experiencing the digital change, recognize that these skills are going to be invaluable for young people coming into the workforce, and so they are buying in."

Naturally, some educators are still struggling to accept the changes, acknowledges Paine. His office is continuing its professional-development blitz, aiming to win over the holdouts by the end of the school year. "I think the 21st Century Skills Initiative is absolutely the right direction for the future of not only West Virginia children but every child in America," says Paine. And he's confident his teachers are up to the job. "My experience is that if you give teachers a task, including twenty-first century learning, they'll generate better solutions than you could ever come up with."

Burr Snider is an Edutopia contributing writer who also writes for Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Wired.

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