I remember the first time my parents tried to explain to me that we were moving to a new country. I was only three years old, but I remember my father teaching me the pronunciation of “hello.” Close enough to the Romanian “alo,” I was able to repeat it incessantly as we waited to leave Europe.
It took us a little over two years to finalize our immigration papers and get through the Communist requirements that left my parents unemployed for so many months that our family lost everything but each other. In April of 1982, we arrived in Houston. The sheer joy that my family felt when debarking the plane continues to this day every time we speak of our tribulations to get to America. Little did I know I would have many more ahead of me.
Like many foreign students entering American society, I set foot in the public school system unable to speak any English besides “hello.” Yet, experiencing such an overwhelming obstacle was a privilege, because it framed my empathetic nature in low-socioeconomic classrooms. While I was not the only non-English speaking student in first grade, I was the only one who did not speak Spanish in the English as a Second Language classroom. Learning to use cognates from Romanian to Spanish and English helped me later comprehend how to teach language arts to English Language Learners. When comparing current educational settings to my public education, I consider myself lucky in several respects.
The public schools I attended encouraged me to think abstractly, taught me to analyze using higher level thinking skills, sponsored my individual talents, and engaged my multiple intelligences. From these elementary experiences, I took away not only mental dexterity, but also memories that have defined expectations of successful school environments. Via my personal experiences as an ESL student, I know public education succeeds when school culture and curricula lead Americans to pursue their highest goals.
My foremost goal in life has been continuous education, whether it consists of life-long learning or discovery through teaching others. Since my parents never had the opportunities of higher education while growing up in a communist country, they instilled the value of education in me as I progressed through school in America. I have developed a deep respect for learning throughout my life, realizing that an education can never be taken away. For this reason, I look back on one of my most prevalent hurdles in life with sincere gratitude, knowing that I have maximized its moral while educating others.
“I'm calling on our nation's governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity,” said President Barack Obama on March 9, 2009, in an address to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Twenty-first century skills are of the utmost importance in today’s public educational setting. Yet, as a public school educator in a socioeconomically depressed area, it feels as though each year, fewer and fewer leaders are taking steps towards establishing critical thinking and problem solving educational settings.
With mandates for higher standardized test scores, schools that do not perform at required levels must use state-approved programs that flush out teacher and student ingenuity. Creativity and innovation are no longer harnessed in early grades, while communication and collaboration are shunned for teacher-concentrated lessons in higher grades. The lack of student involvement in personal education goals must be remedied with more options than just paper and pencil activities. America’s public schools are stifling, not only current students, but also future cultural and economic growth.
To address the issue of the lack of 21st century skills throughout American public school students, the following questions must be addressed:
How can public school curricula help students become:
• Critical thinkers?
• Effective communicators?
• Superior collaborators?
• Information and technology literate?
• Flexible and adaptable?
• Globally competent?
• Financially literate?
An educator-based taskforce must guide governors and state education chiefs to move forward, offer students options in education, and pilot the U. S. global consciousness. Brain-growth experts, literacy proponents, and education leaders that are not part of the political machine must be appointed to work in the best interest of all students side by side with lawmakers. Public curriculum that uses Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy and multiple intelligences must be made available to all students, not just those whose schools achieve specified levels of standardized tests. All American students should have access to current technology, must be guided by superior educators, and need to be held to high standards.
Students must leave the American public school system with specific interpersonal and intrapersonal capabilities. Effective interactions with other humans are critical to success, and can only be achieved with adequate communication, collaborative, and leadership skills. Making sense of such interactions requires logical, analytical, and evaluation skills. Personal growth necessitates self-assessment, goal-setting, and metacognitive skills. Allowing students to leave the public school system with anything less is an injustice to society, nationally and globally.
Challenge-based learning must replace the standardized testing norm. Students must be taught to guide their own learning initiatives, while educators and parents must be taught how to fully support students in such endeavors. All parties must be ready to invest time, patience, and effort into what is considerably the most important part of America’s cultural and financial future— 21st century skills.