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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) Has Failed, Say Educators

Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Has The P21 Movement Succeeded?

Founded in 2002, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) set out to "serve as a catalyst to position 21st century skills at the center of US K-12 education by building collaborative partnerships among education, business, community and government leaders," according to its Web site. Some of the biggest players in education and business are part of this effort, including the National Education Association and Microsoft, and it's been endorsed by the Department of Education.

Framework for 21st Century Learning

The framework presents a holistic view of 21st century teaching and learning that combines a discrete focus on 21st century student outcomes (a blending of specific skills, content knowledge, expertise and literacies) with innovative support systems to help students master the multi-dimensional abilities required of them in the 21st century.

The key elements of 21st century learning are represented in the graphic and descriptions below. The graphic represents both 21st century skills student outcomes (as represented by the arches of the rainbow) and 21st century skills support systems (as represented by the pools at the bottom).

Route 21
P21 Framework Definitions

Now that we are nearly a decade into the 21st century, has this endeavor succeeded?

Veteran education reporter Jay Mathews dismissed the 21st-century skills movement, and P21 itself, in an article titled "The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad." Do you agree? Has P21 accurately identified 21st-century skills? If not, what are they?

-- Eliza Krigman,

Responded on September 12, 2009 10:58 AM
Jackie Bennett, Executive Board Member, United Federation of Teachers

P21 is a curriculum initiative, and as such success would be defined by how well it addresses the question of what students need to know. By that definition, P21 has not been successful. Its standards give short shrift to something that is of great concern to many teachers: broadening student knowledge. P21’s standards make passing reference to the nine core subjects outlined in NCLB, but the thrust of their work really lies elsewhere. Let’s see how P21 defines success: 21st century skills represent the necessary student outcomes for the 21st century, i.e. students need to obtain Learning and Innovation Skills (creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, etc.), Information, Media and Technology Skills, Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes (global awareness, financial literacy, etc.) and Life and Career Skills (initiative and self-direction, among others) .

A lot of teachers would take umbrage at the notion that these skills represent the “necessary student outcomes” that ought to drive their classrooms. Is global awareness good enough? Is financial literacy (balancing a checkbook; devising new ways to bundle mortgages) really the point of what we do? And while creative and critical thinking are wonderful things, why are they being practiced in classes devoted to basic survival skills? Having skills may be part of what it means to be educated, but only a part, and not even the most interesting or exciting part.. Perhaps P21 didn’t intend to exclude deep knowledge, but in effect it did.

But even assuming P21’s language intends something richer and more nuanced than it says, there is the larger problem with this curriculum. We hone our creativity and critical thinking abilities as we acquire knowledge. It doesn’t happen the other way around.

Think of it this way: can’t most children create a powerpoint comparing bicycles to skateboards? Can’t they think critically about their dolls, their teachers, their parents and their friends? But when a high school student reads about France and cannot even conjure up a picture of the Eiffel tower in his head; when he does not associate slavery with the Civil War, or asks why there are no Roman ruins in New York; when he cannot distinguish between a vertebrate and non-vertebrate; and when schools don’t teach these things because, after all, students can always ”access knowledge” on the web (a phrase I often hear) – when these things happen, then what good is it to know how to “think innovatively” if all we can think about is our dolls, our skateboards, and our friends?

Not such hyperbole as it seems. All of these examples come from various Advanced Placement English 11th grade classes that I have taught over the years in a school that was busy with skills well be for P21 came along. The knowledge deficits I saw in my students may not have been what the policy people had in mind, just as they probably are not what the P21 people intend. The fact is, however, that time is a zero-sum game in the schools. In far too many, the exciting world to be discovered has been replaced by skills and skills and skills.

Of course, indirectly, and sometimes directly, good schools teach skills, and certainly much of what P21 encourages, like self direction and initiative should be suffused in what we do. What is more, all students need opportunities to practice that other set of skills that one acquires from carpentry and cooking and shooting films and building cars. We sell kids short when we don’t provide these things.

And we sell them short when we deny them knowledge in order to drill skills. Broad knowledge, along with a broad vocabulary, is the foundation children need for reading. Most likely, it is also the foundation the writers on the blog were given so that they might lead a rich, fulfilling life.

Responded on September 11, 2009 2:34 PM
Lisa Graham Keegan, Principal, The Keegan Company

I count myself among the skeptics here... our children have 21st Century skills. We are struggling to give them the serious intellectual capacity worthy of the tools of our age.

The "movement" is problematic in that it positions itself in opposition to serious academic pursuit. It need not do that, but it does, per the examples already alluded to.

I think plenty of the businesses and folks who support this and don't look really closely think they are merely supporting the latest technoloogies and workplace skills. Not so.

Steve Peha, President, Teaching That Makes Sense

This week’s posts brings up a fundamental debate: content standards vs. skills standards. Research into the content standards of other countries – in particular, those who beat us on standardized tests – makes a clear point: higher-scoring countries have tougher content standards. The implied message is that if we raise our own content standards, our students will perform just as well.

But this is, as yet, an untested hypothesis. And, in any case, I’m not sure it’s correct.

I’ve always been fascinated by the “If we build it, they will learn” mentality of the standards movement. Frankly, I think it’s a big power trip. When I watch people creating standards, I almost always see a God-like gleam in their eye: On the first day, they created reading. And it was good.

I’m not opposed to standards. But I’ve had three questions on my mind ever since they sprung up:

1. How did so many students receive good educations before standards?

2. How did so many teachers created rich and rigorous curricula before standards?

3. How did so many schools provide good teaching and learning environments before standards?

There must be ways of teaching, learning, and running schools that get good results without standards. Why didn’t we study these examples to set the bar for American education?

Instead of taking a political method of determining standards, where the education elite get to decide what kids must learn, I wish we had taken a research-based approach and actually looked at what our best students, teachers, and schools were up to. Standards based on real-world models would surely have been better than what we’ve created thus far. If nothing else, we would have discovered how diverse high-quality education is. And I think this would have helped us avert the “one size fits all” path we appear to be walking down.

The most difficult issue we have to acknowledge is that standards are arbitrary. It’s hard to make a case that someone can’t live a good life if they miss any one of them. Making our standards more like the standards of high-testing foreign countries will not fix this problem; we’ll just be substituting our own arbitrary set of knowledge for someone else’s. But if we observed what the best American students know, and how the best American students learn it, we’d have a logical blueprint for what the best American education might look like – and we’d discover that the line between content and skills is not as sharp as we think it is.

Many people today are excited about content knowledge. Why? Because they see that countries with more rigorous content knowledge standards score higher on standardized tests. What few of us think about is that standardized tests are highly biased toward identifying content knowledge.

In our zeal for more rigorous content standards, there are important things we must consider:

First of all, standards are a zero-sum game. If we tell teachers to make sure kids know their standards, and we have tests, along with rewards and punishments associated therewith, educators will spend their time focusing on prescribed curriculum and virtually nothing else. This narrows the curriculum.

Second, since the existence of standards means the existence of tests, which again have high stakes associated with them, we create a culture of “teaching to the test”. Yet most of what we know about good teaching tells us that rather than teaching to arbitrary benchmarks, it’s better to teach to the needs of our students. As Dan Willingham points out in his book, “Why Kids Hate School”, one of the biggest reasons they hate it is that the material they are forced to master is often too low or too high relative to their ability level.

Third, standards are rarely road-tested in real classrooms before they are released. We’re never sure how they will be interpreted or how teachers will teach to them. Furthermore, no standards body I’m aware of has ever had research-proven answers for practical questions like, “How can all this material be covered, with mastery, in a single school year?”

(Before we leap to the conclusion that standards are our only hope, let’s keep in mind that the ACT, the SAT, and the NAEP are the three tests we seem to trust the most and neither comes with standards attached. Clearly, there are effective ways of generating achievement data that don’t involve standards.)

Fourth, the criterion-referenced achievement model that we have paired with standards creates a culture of minimum competence. There’s no advantage to schools in pushing their kids to the highest levels so most just make sure their students inch over the bar.

Finally, let’s get back to the issue of content standards versus skills standards. Learning is the acquisition of new knowledge. How will kids learn it? By applying skills, of course. Even listening is a skill; and yes, most kids need direct instruction and frequent reminders in order to do it well. Then there’s the memorization issue. If we throw a ton of content at kids, how do we expect them to remember it? Might they not need some good memorization skills? Does any standards document currently contain memorization skills? If so, I haven’t seen one. And yet, anyone who is in favor of a content-rich curriculum must, of necessity, be in favor of kids being good memorizers.

Content and skills cannot be separated. It is a fallacy to think that standards documents favoring one kind of learning over the other are anything but inherently flawed. More than that, the content vs. skills debate, when applied in a traditional academic context, sets up a false dichotomy about the kinds of learning kids need in order to be successful, happy, contributors in a contemporary democracy. There’s more to a good education than what appears in any standards document.

Then there’s the conformity problem. We have millions of students in this country. And most people believe there are many paths to success. Standards send the message that there is only one path, and that every child must walk it in lock step fashion. This may fit the cultural milieu and social history of other countries. But it strikes me as wholly un-American. When content people criticize skills people, or vice versa, the dialog devolves into something that is not only meaningless but dangerous. America stands, not just for cultural and religious diversity, but for intellectual diversity as well. That’s one of the reasons why we value Freedom of Speech so highly. And why it’s so important for all of us to remember that standards constrain speech. Specifically, they constrain what teachers say to our kids. And what our kids say in return.

As we run ever faster toward the precipice of national standards, I hope we take at least a fleeting moment and pull back far enough to see what we’re really doing. I would challenge our standards-makers to ask themselves questions like these: How would you feel if the standards you created were imposed on your children in an average public school? As a teacher, would you prefer to teach to national standards or would you find it more rewarding to teach using your own mind and heart? If, as a teacher, you had kids who spanned a wide range of abilities, would you want the freedom to meet their individual needs? Or would you prefer to teach every child the same thing, the same way, at the same time, on the same day? (I know that in theory standards don’t dictate this type of teaching. But in practice, I see it all over our country in classroom after classroom. Standards discourage differentiated instruction. Yet differentiated instruction is considered a current research-based best practice. All reforms, including standards, should encourage good teaching.)

Finally, let’s stop all this content vs. skills baloney. Yes, background knowledge is vital. But how do children acquire background knowledge if not through some kind of skill? If it’s important for kids to know the causes of The Great Depression isn’t it also important for them to be able to find that information – on their own! – through research?

As we move ahead with education reform, and, in all likelihood, continue the dubious battle between content and skills, let us never forget the inherently reductive nature of standards and how this contrasts so starkly with the wide open world we want our children to master. Let’s tell our kids the truth: that there are many ways to succeed and that different people succeed differently. Let’s think carefully and proceed cautiously when we impose standards and tests on millions of young Americans who are forced, by law, to attend school; who cannot vote to choose their representatives; who have had no input into the standards they must meet; and who have no choice but to live thirteen years of their lives under the shadow of an approach that has some serious drawbacks and that may not be the best way to improve our schools.

Mary Ann Wolf, Executive Director, State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA)

Several years ago when I was teaching, my principal discouraged me from having my 5th grade students do presentations because the state would not be testing these skills during the year end high stakes assessment. While this seems infuriating and short-sighted to most who value quality instructional practices, it is an unfortunate, unintended consequence of the statewide accountability systems that has happened in many schools and districts across the country. While the skills included in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills framework may not be new, they have never been more important to ensure that our students are college- and career- ready. These skills are harder to assess, but that does not make them less valuable. They should be seamlessly integrated into the instructional practices at all levels, in all subjects.

Several years ago when I was teaching, my principal discouraged me from having my 5th grade students do presentations because the state would not be testing these skills during the year end high stakes assessment. While this seems infuriating and short-sighted to most who value quality instructional practices, it is an unfortunate, unintended consequence of the statewide accountability systems that has happened in many schools and districts across the country. While the skills included in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills framework may not be new, they have never been more important to ensure that our students are college- and career- ready. These skills are harder to assess, but that does not make them less valuable. They should be seamlessly integrated into the instructional practices at all levels, in all subjects.

With our ever expanding global economy, skills like collaboration, global awareness, technology literacy, and financial literacy are critical to give our students the opportunity to compete with students around the world for high level, innovative and creative jobs. It is important to note that this is not necessarily because such 21st Century skills cannot be assessed, but rather that most states have chosen assessments that do not currently address these kinds of skills.

Despite the fact that many schools and districts have minimized focus on such skills, the good news is that truly effective instruction leads to an increase in student achievement in core subject and performance on 21st Century skills. We see this again and again in models in schools across the country. One example is eMINTS, which began in Missouri, but has expanded to 11 other states. The eMINTS program provides a 21st Century learning environment for students and teachers, including high quality technology tools, resources, and curriculum; availability of data on students achievement daily or weekly; and over 200 hours of professional development for teachers. Teachers typically use more project based learning approaches with students, and teachers are able to individualize instruction for students based on instructionally embedded assessments. Students are given opportunities to learn by applying knowledge and skills to relevant situations, and they often become creators of content. Teachers are part of professional learning communities that meet regularly to develop lessons, explore resources, and discuss implementation. This also includes mentoring and classroom observations to provide models and support teachers in the program.

Based on the evaluation data available from the ten years of implementation, eMINTS is shown to definitively help close the achievement gap, improve achievement, increase parent involvement, and decrease discipline referrals. This is true for some of the highest need schools and most at-risk students, frequently in Title I schools, while also addressing many 21st Century skills.

The Texas TIP Model, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, and the North Caroline IMPACT model have had similar results in increasing student engagement by transforming teaching and learning. In these models, maximizing the potential of technology has been critical to accelerating change and addressing both core subjects and 21st Century skills.

The 21st Century Skills movement has certainly been effective in ensuring that education stakeholders and policy-makers are aware that skills like collaboration, global awareness, and financial literacy are recognized as critical to students being college- and career ready. We know inherently that these skills matter for kids and for our country; but if we do not specifically work to address the 21st Century skills, many students will not be prepared for college and career.

We are very encouraged by these important models and the fact that many states are addressing skills beyond the core subject areas. We do not need to choose or emphasize one or the other. Sound instructional practices and leadership, like in eMINTS schools, ensure that our students are college- and career-ready. We have many opportunities for policy and programs to help us guarantee that all students have access to this high quality instruction.

Eliza Krigman,

Lynne Munson, President and Executive Director, Common Core, submitted the following:

We and other critics of P21 agree, and have stated repeatedly, that the skills P21 promotes are important. What we take issue with is P21’s unserious treatment of subject matter content. Consider these examples of recommended lessons from P21’s website:

12th grade English students “translate a piece of dialogue from a Shakespearean play into a text message exchange and analyze the effect of the writing mode on the tone or meaning of the dialogue. Students then discuss audience and purpose in relation to communication media.” P. 6

8th grade science students “view video samples from a variety of sources of people speaking about a science-related topic (e.g., news reporters, news interviews of science experts, video podcasts of college lectures, segments from public television documentaries, or student-made videos of parents and professionals in their community). Students rate the videos on the degree to which the person sounded scientific….” P. 5

12th grade geography students “test the law of retail gravitation (i.e., the number of visits a resident makes to competing shopping centers is inversely proportional to the distances between residence and center and proportional to the size of the center), students work in small groups to conduct a community survey of a retail area’s “retail gravity” on a non-school attendance day….” P. 15

Compare P21’s vision for American education to the comprehensive, content-rich education offered in countries that outperform the United States. Which way should we go?

Sandy Kress, Former Senior Advisor on Education to President George W. Bush, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP

I'll close out my "half of the inning" with Monty with two very brief comments:

1) The issue is not one about locals versus feds; rather, it's about equity, assuring that poor and minority kids are educated to high, common standards, and

2) Whatever else is done to improve assessments, the assessments that are used for accountability must be valid, reliable, aligned to high content and performance standards that are common at least across the state (and, even better, across the country), and common and comparable across the subgroups. If they are not, all this talk about getting ALL students to high, common standards - with the capacity to achieve in the 21st century century - is simply not serious.

Monty Neill, Deputy Director, FairTest

It is certainly true that some local approaches have been tied to low-level practices and expectations - while others have been excellent. High-stakes standardized tests have created an illusion of quality based on inflated scores. They have failed to support or lead the kinds of strong schooling all children deserve (through inadequate tests and often by pretending that ignoring resources and focusing on tests could solve educationa problems). And they are undermining high quality in many localities. The danger is to believe we must choose between inadequate localism and inadequate centralized high-stakes testing. Nor is the solution simply to have better centralized standardized tests, though such would be part of any overall improvement. At a FairTest-NEA conference on overhauling state assessment systems, I addressed these issues. My remarks, along with slides from a presentation by Jim Pellegrino and other materials, are at

At a FairTest-NEA conference on overhauling state assessment systems, I addressed these issues. My remarks, along with slides from a presentation by Jim Pellegrino and other materials, are at I insert them below - sorry for length and not every point is immediately germane, but they do address the issue of including local assessment information in accountability evidence. Again, that approach was acceptable to Chairman Miller and Ranking Member McKeon in their NCLB reauthorization draft two years ago: they recognized the problems of negative localism could be resolved, and in doing so they could address the problems of negative centralism.

These remarks were delivered by Monty Neill, Ed.D., Interim Executive Director of FairTest, as part of a panel discussion following a keynote presentation by Dr. James Pellegrino.

Thank you. I am very happy to be with you today, and I am looking forward to a very interesting, challenging and productive conference.

I'd like to make two main points:

First, the need to shift from an accountability model to a shared responsibility approach.

Second, the necessity to build systems that rely primarily on school and classroom assessing.


Jim Pellegrino has explained well the limits of the tests, and why we need to change the assessments we use.

Accountability as now conceived is highly centralized, top down, and acts as a 'gotcha' tool. As a result it causes narrowing of curriculum and instruction to the tests and inhibits the kinds of work necessary to create high quality schools.

We can redefine accountability or we can use better terms, such as shared responsibility. In either case, we need a different approach that does the following:

1. Uses multiple sources of evidence of student learning across all important areas.

2. Includes opportunity to learn data from both schools and communities (such things as health care availability).

3. Focuses on school improvement efforts and successes. In various documents from the Forum on Educational Accountability that you have in your packet we discuss some of that, especially professional learning and parental involvement and support. [See Redefining Accountability and Assessment and Accountability for Improving Schools and Learning, both on the web at]

4. Uses the multiple sources of evidence across inputs, improvement efforts, and results to evaluate school status, efforts, and improvement or lack of improvement.

5. Provides to schools – and communities – that which has turned out to be lacking and needed.

6. Builds systems to foster improvement. Such systems must be based fundamentally on schools as communities of learners engaging in shared practice.

7. Engages in targeted interventions when evaluation of data shows there are problems and schools, despite help, are not improving.

This means responsibility is shared among governments, educators, parents and communities. It requires continuing dialog and mutual respect. Only in a context of shared responsibility, rather than enforced top-down accountability, can the energy of educators truly be released.

Local assessment:

A healthy evaluation of student learning will draw on many forms of assessments. I agree with Jim: we have to find ways to develop new tools, good tasks and projects, etc., and professional learning will be essential. I want to emphasize some other aspects. Some of this is in the expert panel on assessment report in your packet [see links above], which Jim and Alba Ortiz and I worked on. This report is the basis of the starting principles for our discussion. I would emphasize the following:

- First, teachers are the primary assessors. They need access to many tools and must know how to use them well, but in any event a good deal of assessment in a rich, high-quality classroom necessarily means assessing on the fly, adapting, deciding to use assessment B instead of A, etc., replying to the emerging needs of each and every student. It is a core teaching skill. In addition, teachers should know how to create good assessments – not because any one teacher can create all the good assessments she will need, but because that knowledge is necessary for understanding assessment and because good assessments will need to bubble up from teachers. In sum, we must respect teachers as assessors but ensure they can become good at this work.

- Two, the kinds of information that come from the ongoing flow of classroom work provide essential data for being able to fairly and helpfully evaluate individuals and schools. Thus, assessment information should draw on evidence from three sources: ongoing classroom work; the flexible use of approved questions, tasks and projects; and larger-scale assessments. By approved questions, I mean, for example, a bank of tasks that teachers can use in instruction or for more formal assessing done as part of classwork (rather than on the state education department's schedule). Technology is beginning to provide many valuable tools and procedures to make this workable.

- Three, there needs to be flexibility in using assessments. The requirement that all students answer the same questions or perform the same tasks at the same time should be minimally employed with little weight relative to the evidence provided by flexible use of approved items and tasks and information from the ongoing flow of classroom work. But this flexibility must be embedded in schools in which educators share and develop their practice.

- Four, states must develop systems that rely on the three sources of evidence and a variety of types of assessments to provide public information and support thoughtful evaluations. Note that I am emphasizing evaluation by humans, not judgments triggered automatically by a set of test scores.

- Five, there are several reasons a statewide system must include local evidence. If, for example, performance tasks are a key part of the evidence of learning, as they should be, we cannot realistically have many tasks shipped off for central scoring. That means we must have local scoring, as is done in many nations. (There are ways to ensure quality and consistency.) [A note for National Journal readers: some of the evidence for this point, which is central to Sandy's concerns, is at]

In addition, the desire to ascertain progress in multiple subjects runs up against the danger of far too much testing (e.g., annual testing in multiple subjects). Relying on locally controlled, largely classroom-based information, can solve that contradiction.

To avoid a rigid system that is bound not to work for many, we need local flexibility in deciding which assessments to use when. Assessments also must be incorporated into instruction so classes don't have to constantly stop to do external tests, such as the currently popular "benchmark" or "periodic" tests.

As I noted above, teachers are the primary assessors. By expecting local assessments to include classroom evidence from the regular flow of student work and by building in the supports to enable strong teacher-based assessing, we commit to systems that really are about employing high-quality professional educators. That seems to be the secret in Finland and other more educationally successful nations.

Finally, ensuring that local assessments, varied as they will be, are of adequate quality and that different does not mean low expectations for some, will take time to work out. The evidence I have seen tells me that acceptably uniform and accurate systems can be built. If we must trade some looseness in data as a price for a system that does not turn schools into relatively low-level test prep, that should be an easy choice to make. Further, if the emphasis is on using evidence for improvement, not for gotcha and sanctions, a modest increase in looseness creates no real problems.

In sum, we need high-quality, mainly performance assessments, we need local flexibility within reasonable bounds, and we need a shared responsibility approach to school improvement.

Sandy Kress, Former Senior Advisor on Education to President George W. Bush, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP

I want to thank Monty for bringing us to the crux of the matter that Checker, too, began to address.

We all want improved assessments, assessments with "higher tops," and multiple measures. We do so because folks like Diane correctly want, in simple terms, for teachers to teach and students to learn the canon. We do so because folks like me want to teach students the capacity through socratic dialogue to learn to think through and discuss the important ethical, philosophical, and other issues involved in living the good life. We do so because the 21st century skills folks want students to be, er, well steeped in 21st century skills.

But we should remember one wise, though by no means perfect, decision made by that band of staffers and members - both Democratic and Republican - who constructed NCLB. Yes, Monty, they wanted multiple measures. But they did not want a student's failure to read or do math at a basic level to be hidden, disguised, or trumped by some other "measures." Aren't we aware enough by now how these other school "judgments" have been used in the past to allow mostly disadvantaged students to slip through, even at the cost of creating the pernicious achievement gap?

Current assessments are indeed in need of real improvement. But I have yet to see evidence of a single student in Texas who has failed our "too-low-standards" reading tests but who could effectively read Shakespeare, engage in high level socratic dialogue, study advanced science, or be successful in "21st century skills."

So, as we discuss higher level achievement for all our subgroups to higher level, COMMON content and performance standards, let's be sure we are all committed to valid, reliable, and common assessments to hold ourselves accountable for success.

Monty Neill, Deputy Director, FairTest

Assessments used for accountability should meet the thoroughly ignored criteria that were in the 1994 and 2001 (NCLB) authorizations of ESEA, including the requirements to use multiple measures (multiple sources of evidence would be an improved way to say it) and to assess both lower and higher order skills.

What is "commonly given" as Sandy puts it should be at a minimum open to more investigation: if kids can show they really can write well, do we care if they all respond to the same prompt? Doing the latter has clearly shown it produces teaching to narrow prompts and is no way to ensure good teaching and learning. I do not mean no common assessments, but rather a system in which such are just a part, probably a minor part. But that would put more weight on ensuring high quality local and classroom evidence, inspectorates, and such.

Sandy Kress, Former Senior Advisor on Education to President George W. Bush, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP

I think Monty is right: there is a lot of support for improving assessments. But I also assume that this consensus includes the notion that assessments used for accountability will continue to be characterized by the key requirements of NCLB, largely set out by amendments from the late Senator Wellstone. Those essentially are that the assessments be valid, reliable, aligned closely to common content and performance standards, and commonly given both "across the tracks" as well as across the state. If so, we might be on to something!

Monty Neill, Deputy Director, FairTest

It is encouraging to see how much the discussion of 21st, 20th and 5th BCE century skills recognize that the current testing structure cannot work for our children or our society. Neither it nor the unequal educations provided by race and class ever served many children well. As some have noted, too many current efforts, such as looming "common" tests and the intensified misuse of current state exams to measure (not evaluate) teachers are helping to cement in place the inequalities of past centuries. So long as the nation mandates high stakes attached to multiple-choice and short-response standardized tests, we can be sure that neither high-quality content nor the opportunity to learn strong thinking skills in and across content areas will be provided to most of our students. Low-income students, students of color, those learning English or with disabilities will suffer most grievously.

So it is heartening to see Andy and Tom, for example, make testing reform central to their understanding of school improvement and join FairTest in calling for performance assessment. There are of course myriad devils in the details: What kinds of assessments do we mean by "performance?" How much standardization is required for any given purpose, and what other means of establishing consistency (where needed) can we employ? How high should stakes be for any given assessment or set of assessments? What's the balance among content, understanding, and thinking skills? How can we best ensure not only teacher knowledge but voice and power in using them when appropriate? How can we get the funding for creating and maintaining the new systems and ensuring the needed professional learning? These and more won't have one right answer.

As a first major step forward, the Department of Education should rewrite its proposed requirements for use of "Race to the Top" funds for states to build combined classroom-local-state assessment systems that meet multiple needs and support rich content and powerful thinking. Reps. Miller and McKeon were ready to support that move in their efforts to reauthorize NCLB two years ago. Don't expect the results to look alike, do monitor and evaluate them carefully, and do require states to share their learning experiences and results. That revised approach should be combined with a re-written, sensible effort to help states construct high-quality educator evaluation systems rather than its current scheme to replace inadequate systems with destructive reliance on low-level tests. And it should ensure that whether states stay with their own standardized tests or partake in new consortium-based tests, those tests become only a small part of the evidence of student learning and school success.

Given the wide support across this blog for improving assessment, that should be something we unite on.

Eliza Krigman,

Paige Johnson, Global K12 manager at Intel and former Partnership for 21st Century Skills chair, submitted the following:

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills was created to garner deeper understanding of and support for the connection of content knowledge and performance skills. Why? Because currently too many of our students are no longer seen as potential winners in a workforce that demands more of them than just factual knowledge. If others truly believe that this work is not important or that the issue is not a significant one – I ask that they please direct me to evidence that proves all of our students are critical thinkers, able to solve complex issues, financially literate, understand and respect diversity, and manage themselves and others while working in team situations. Show me the statistics that prove that any student can step forward and be a future leader.

The work of the Partnership is founded on the belief that all students need and deserve both knowledge and accompanying performance skills if they are to be successful citizens in a rapidly changing global society. Over the last decade, our education system has been test-focused and teachers and administrators are under pressure to demonstrate student success on single measures of accountability that do not include or reward application of knowledge to real-life experiences, problem solving or innovation. Intel is collaborating with others to help develop assessments that will be more meaningful measures of a student’s skills, capabilities and content knowledge.

The Partnership is a success – as evidenced by the diversity and strength of the Board membership and the states that are now part of the work. Our goal has been to demonstrate how content and skills are needed in current time – not how they were needed in the system of the past. The world constantly evolves and so should our education policies and practices. There is incredibly important work left to do, starting with clearly articulating the relationship of 21st century skills to standards, assessments, curriculum and instruction and profession development. Educators, researchers and other stakeholders agree that we have to intentionally combine knowledge and skills into all aspects of the education system to give our students the education they need to thrive in today’s world. Currently, 13 states are working toward making this a reality.

The Partnership has never believed that skills such as creativity, problem solving and respect for diversity were created in this century or that they can or should exist independent of content. The stronger the Partnership makes these statements, the louder and more vociferously they are twisted by those who are seemingly afraid of changing a very comfortable status quo – one that works for some, but not for those students who cannot break free from the cycle of poverty or failure. We need to move beyond a decade of singular emphasis on “minimum proficiency” and “adequate progress” in basic skills. We must have greater hopes and dreams for our youth and move toward a broader and more ambitious set of learning expectations.

Tom Vander Ark, Partner, Revolution Learning

As a number of C21 critics have pointed out, good schools have long taught critical thinking and enough content to think about. What's missing from this thread is the importance of performance assessments. We've bent public education to bubble sheet assessment and squeezed out nearly everything authentic about learning. Good schools like High Tech High demand frequent presentations of learning where students show what they know. The focus is on great work product not great test scores (which, of course, take care of themselves).

The Partnership has a lot of supporters but hasn't done much to change schooling in America. I'm hoping we'll see some advances in assessment as part of RttT and i3 that pilot combinations of adaptive assessment and performance assessment. However, there's substantial risk that we'll lock in on a Common Core and a common set of old-fashioned assessments--an unintentional Partnership for 20th Century Skills.

Ken Kay, President, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and, CEO, e-Luminate Group

Certainly the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has experienced some success to date. Most notably, we have worked with practitioners to create a critical set of 21st century objectives for K-12 education and raised the importance of critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills for every child. In addition, we have elevated the importance of other critical subjects such as global competence, financial literacy and information, media and technology literacy.

Still, we would be the first to admit that we have a long way to go. Nevertheless, providing the impetus for these important conversations and working with practitioners to accept these notions as part of the education reform conversation is a major step forward.

The Partnership has addressed a lot of the previous claims to date, i.e., never did the Partnership for 21st Century Skills believe creativity, problem solving and other skills were created in this century, nor do they exist without or supersede content. These are not the reasons the movement can’t be called a complete success.

Rather, there is still incredibly important work left to do, starting with clearly articulating the relationship of 21st century skills to standards, assessments, curriculum and instruction and profession development. Educators, researchers and other stakeholders agree that we have to intentionally combine knowledge and skills into all aspects of the education system in order to give our students the education they need to thrive in today’s world. Currently 13 states are working toward making this reality a success.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

I've little to add to what Andy, Sandy and Diane have written. There's nothing new about 21st Century skills. Those qualities of mind, behavior, temperament and interaction have long been in demand and good schools and teachers have long helped youngsters to acquire them-- in addition to core knowledge and basic skills. Where I fault the P-21 folks is in deflecting attention from the latter to the former and ignoring the painful tradeoffs inherent in a 6 hour school day. I also note that, while traditional knowledge and basic skills are relatively easy to assess (and thus to hold schools and educators accountable for imparting), that's not true of "creaitivity" or "communicating" or "working well with others". I fear that more than a little of the P-21 push is an effort by educators to abjure results-based accountability by changing the emphasis from those things that can be assessed to those that cannot be.

Steve Peha, President, Teaching That Makes Sense

Having lived now in the 21st century for almost ten years, I’m beginning to get a sense of the skills I need to succeed even though my school life came and went more than 20 years ago. Tops on my list are social and emotional literacy, followed closely by financial literacy, technological literacy, and health. I wish I were wiser in all of these areas. Fortunately, I’ve noticed that our bookstores overflow with information in these domains. But sadly our school curricula give them short shrift.

The movement for so-called 21st century skills is well-intentioned. But, looking over curriculum standards for most states, I think the current century has largely been ignored. Since the standards movement began, I’ve had a sick-in-the-gut feeling that this effort did not represent true reform but simply codified into state law the traditional mindset of the post-Sputnik period in American education.

The process for creating standards is highly politicized and therefore given to compromise. This curriculum-by-committee approach can never yield anything that truly represents reform in education. Instead, we end up with either a lowest common denominator result or regression to the mean, both of which amount to little more than a regurgitation of the past.

I think this is what the 21st century skills folks are worried about. As many people have noted, their “21st century skills” are not exactly new or revolutionary. But they do provide some contrast to the backward-looking results of the standards movement.

The real question we’re all dancing around is this: Are schools going to teach what our children need to be successful in their lives? I would argue that the answer is no.

Education is today, and has always been, squarely focused on tradition. Think, for example, of all those people, both in and out of school, who cry foul any time a progressive educator decides to teach kids to read rather than teaching them the canon of Western literature. Even a skill as simple as subtracting whole numbers is still taught in American schools with one of the least efficient algorithms. And don’t even get me started about the sorry state of writing and grammar instruction. We might do better showing students “Goodbye Mr. Chips”, “To Sir with Love”, and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. For extra credit, I’m sure we could license re-runs of “Room 222” and “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

America is in many ways a modern nation. And central to our national identity is an optimism that propels us into the future with hope and the promise that our children will live a better life. But school has never been aligned with this reality. So I come back to the real question: Are we giving kids what they need? And just about everything I see in schools says no.

My real frustration with school today is that giving kids what they need is more possible than ever. We know so much about children and how they learn. And the professional literature on teaching has gone through an incredible expansion in the last 15 years. In short, we know enough about kids and enough about teaching to serve our children well. And, if we’re honest, we know enough about the 21st century to at least have some intuition about what today’s kindergarteners will face when they finish school circa 2025. But we’re not using any of this information. In fact, many people in our society, and especially some of those in the movement toward education reform, stand squarely against this.

Let me give an example. Recently, The New York Times published an article about reading. The upshot was a way of teaching where kids choose their own books. What they were talking about (although they did it poorly) was the Reader’s Workshop method of instruction. Reader’s Workshop is a fantastic approach to reading that I have used for more than 10 years. I’ve also taught it to many others. It has been serving children and teachers well for more than a quarter of a century. But in the NYT article it gets trashed by people who have never used it and who obviously know little about it.

So here we have a very modern way of teaching reading – a model that works well – and high-status ed reform experts will speak negatively about it even though they’ve never used it or studied it in any serious way. But that’s how we roll in American education. Most of what’s new and helpful gets smacked down by the old guard in the guise of preserving arbitrary traditions for which there is little or no proof of value.

While the notion of 21st century skills may not get much traction among the edurati, I applaud those people who have at least given some thought to what a contemporary curriculum might look like. Of course, if what they produce is actually helpful, it too will get smacked down by traditionalists and other self-interested parties like conservative politicians, educational publishers, and testing companies – all of whom would have a lot to lose if schooling in America caught up with the times.

Again and again, I’m troubled by the direction of curricular progress in our country. The question I keep asking just won’t go away: Are we giving kids what they need? After visiting and working in more than 200 schools over the last 15 years, I’m almost certain the answer is no and that we’re moving in exactly the wrong direction. Instead of exploring the future, we are codifying the past – locking into law ideas that didn’t serve children well in the 20th century and likely won’t serve them at all in the 21st.

Perhaps education is not about learning; perhaps it’s about the preservation of culture. In this sense, I think we’re doing fabulous work. But in the process of teaching the past we’re cementing the inequities of the past. I would argue that some aspects of our culture should not be preserved and that education, as the great equalizer, should be just as dedicated to eradicating the worst of the past as it is to promoting the best of the future.

If there are groups of people who wish to dedicate themselves to thinking seriously about what children will need to succeed in the 21st century, I wholeheartedly support them. I believe their mission is worthy of our attention and our admiration. But given the temper of the times, I don’t know how they can succeed. If past is prologue, it will be another hundred years before anyone in education becomes comfortable with 21st century skills.

Phil Quon, Superintendent, Cupertino Union School District

21st century skills can mean different things to different people depending on your educational background, your work with young people, and your ability to look forward into the endless possibilities of what education can become. How often have we sat in classrooms today and realized that we could just as well be sitting in a classroom 50 years ago? What happened in those 50 years? Or the larger question might be what didn’t happen?

Today’s young people enter our schools as “digital natives” - - - students who embrace technology and can do so much more with it than we would ever think possible. I am convinced that the physiology behind their learning is much different than what my learning was due to the tactile, audio, and visual media that young people are exposed to from birth. As educators we ought to be tapping into these new technologies to see how academic content can be delivered in richer and more meaningful ways. We should be asking if 21st century skills are the key to learning content more efficiently and freeing students from the grips of past pedagogies which require all students to learn the same content at the same pace. Efficient businesses would abhor such organizational structures.

21st century skills are skills we want our young people to acquire to be successful in their workplaces of the future. Workplaces and jobs not yet defined. So how can we be sure we are doing right by our kids? Our teachers need to embrace pedagogical practices which tap into the learning dynamics of their students - - - the “digital natives.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could deliver the academic content in half the time with greater comprehension and retention? Should all students reach the same academic milestones at the very same time? These are the questions that have plagued our education systems for many years. The breakthrough will come when 21st century skills serve as the basis for teachers changing academic content and instructional methodologies and for students to have the skills (along with the technologies) to access the curricula.

“Pedagogical fad?” I think not. It is the synergy behind the drive to improve student access to meaningful learning and ultimately success in academic performance and achievement.

Cynthia G. (Cindy) Brown, Vice President for Education Policy, Center for American Progress

As my colleague Raegen Miller points out, the forces that make the P21 movement relevant are still at work (see Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane's 2004 book, The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market, for a fuller treatment of this subject). At bottom, we're talking about Moore's Law: the cost of a fixed amount of computing power halves every two years or so. This trend will continue, and with it, the frontier of which jobs are susceptible to some level of automation will continue to expand. Jobs that aren't threatened by automation are of two kinds. First, there are service jobs that require neither complex communication nor problem solving, flipping burgers, for example. Such jobs do not pay much, and their immunity to off-shoring is cold comfort. Second, there are jobs that require complex communication and expert thinking, i.e. 21st century skills.

I don't think anyone seriously imagines that a high enough proportion of US students leave school prepared for the second kind of job. A lack of focus on "21st century skills" is part of the reason, as the P21 movement has helped point out. But there are many facets of the challenge to improve US schools in light of the shift in demand driven by Moore's Law.

Kim M. Stasny, Superintendent, Oxford School District, Oxford, MS

Diane has a very good point in that Jay Leno’s interviewees laugh about their ignorance. That is a very sad fact. As a superintendent of a public school district, it amazes me that we talk so much about 21st Century skills (which I agree is fiction) and we continue to look like a system from the early 1900’s. As a matter of fact, instead of focusing on the bigger issues, so many of my colleagues get bogged down in determining whether or not to allow cell phones on campus. So, I ask, who needs to enter the 21st Century…certainly not our digital natives that we teach today.

As for the P21 organization, I don’t believe there has been any impact. We talk quite a bit about redesigning high schools to meet the needs of our global market but we continue to frame our practices in the same mold…teaching classes in blocks of equal length, sponsoring athletics after school, having students sit in rows, following all the mandates that our legislators continue to perpetuate, and on and on and on. As an aside, one of the laws that came down from the powers that be mandated school districts to give parents of twins (or multiple births) the final say on whether or not their children are placed in the same classrooms. (I just hope they didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time in that discussion.) And heaven forbid that we get out of the box to try something innovative without the blessings from above (ie State Department of Education).

I like Andy Rotherham’s statement: “Today, by contrast, our commitment to a more equitable society as well as the demands of our economy mean a deliberate effort must be made to ensure that all students learn how to think, analyze, problem-solve and so forth.” And that should have been our goal since time began.

Diane Ravitch, Research Professor Of Education, New York University

The notion of "21st century skills" is a fiction. There are no such skills. Every single skill listed as a "21st century skill" has been in demand long before the 21st century, in some cases for many centuries. Most of what is now proposed--whether critical thinking skills or working in groups--has been an integral part of the progressive education movement since the early years of the twentieth century. Anyone knowledgeable about the history of American education would recognize most of these skills as another manifestation of progressivism (see Lawrence Cremin's The Transformation of the Schools or my own Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform). In reality, the so-called 21st century skills are no more than an echo of the ideas that have dominated our colleges of education since the early twentieth century. I have elsewhere ( suggested that the schools should emphasize such 19th century skills as love of learning, the ability to think for oneself (individualism) and to work alone (initiative), the ability to stand alone against the crowd (courage), and so on.

The board of P21, the organization that promotes this alleged movement, is top-heavy with representatives of the major technology companies, suggesting at least to me that the movement will end up noted as a lobbyist for selling more hardware and software to the schools. But even the idea of information literacy is not new. Schools have already spent billions on equipment from these same companies (and others that have since disappeared). Our children are not deficient in skills or in computer literacy; they know better than their parents how to use computers to access information. Unfortunately what they lack is the knowledge with which to evaluate the information they so easily access. They are deficient in knowledge; they are deficient in understanding of history, civics, science, geography, foreign languages, the arts, and literature. Anyone who has seen Jay Leno's street interviews (his Jaywalking interviews) has observed the profound ignorance that Leno encounters when he meets young people and asks them questions about the most basic ideas and facts of history, civics, and geography. Those he interviews--who seem to be mainly in their early 20s--laugh about their ignorance; they think it is funny that they know so little of the world. They do not lack thinking skills or computer literacy. They lack knowledge. The 21st century skills movement, like so much else that we are now doing in education, will plunge us even deeper into our present morass of happy ignorance. Diane Ravitch

Sandy Kress, Former Senior Advisor on Education to President George W. Bush, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP

I'm with Jay and Andy on this one.

In fact, I'm announcing this morning the formation of a new group, the Partnership for 5th Century BCE Skills. We will be using the teaching methods of Socrates as our basic approach since we believe that they are more relevant for all centuries, including this one, than those of our rival partnership. For those who worry that we're just a bunch of fuddy-duddys, I want to ease your mind. We will encourage the use of the tools of modern technology that, of course, are important to us today but were unavailable in Athens to our founder.

Andrew J. Rotherham, Co-Founder and Publisher, Education Sector

Most education observers and analysts agree that schools need to do a better job of teaching students how to think and a substantial subset believe that schools also must do a better job imparting content and knowledge to students as well.

The concerns of this first group gave rise to the "21st Century Skills" movement and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. But along the way some of the manifestations of the 21st Century Skills idea have prompted a backlash. That debate is pitting the second group of reformers, those concerned with content, at odds with many of those promoting 21st Century Skills.

This is not one of these phony wars in education where both sides are basically right and the way forward lies in synthesis. Sure, schools need to teach both content and skills but that sentiment is meaningless except rhetorically. When one scratches below the surface of the debate you quickly find non-trivial debates about content, knowledge, pedagogy, and the nature of teaching itself.

I've been among the skeptics of a lot of what masquerades as 21st Century Skills. The whole construct of "new" skills seems to me to reek of contemporary flattery and miss the point that none of these skills are actually new. What's new today is the need for universality: In other words, in the past elites in society (our society and others throughout history) had these skills while the masses generally did not. Today, by contrast, our commitment to a more equitable society as well as the demands of our economy mean a deliberate effort must be made to ensure that all students learn how to think, analyze, problem-solve and so forth.

This is not a trivial distinction either. Thinking that these skills are 'new' rather than thinking that they are simply 'more necessary' leads to different remedies. Because many of the teaching and curricular constructs that fall under the 21st Century Skills banner are new and not grounded in research or experience, concern about the 21st Century Skills movement encompasses a wide-swath of education reformers across the political and ideological spectrum - many of whom agree on little else. The depth and diversity of concern is something that 21st Century Skills adherents should pay attention to.

Given the patchwork curriculum and teacher quality problems that pervade the education system today an effort to dramatically improve teaching and learning and effectively teach knowledge and skills is an enormous challenge. In an article in this month's Educational Leadership Dan Willingham of the University of Virginia and I lay out the three key challenges - curriculum, teacher quality, and assessment. Singularly, each of these issues has confounded generations of school reformers. Tackling them in tandem and at scale is akin to an educational Manhattan Project.

To date neither the 21st Century Skills movement overall nor P21 has seriously engaged with these challenges, although to their credit they've lately signaled a willingness to do so as the critics have become more vocal and the pushback more intense. But a failure to go deep on these issues is why rather than being transformative so far the 21st Century Skills movement instead runs the risk of being another educational fad that changes little - or worse unravels some of the progress that has been made on behalf of low-income students over the past few decades.

We should all hope for much richer teaching and learning than is generally the case today. But it will take deeper engagement and discussion for a radically improved vision of teaching - and one that is grounded in evidence and a coherent theory of action - to permeate our notoriously change-averse system of schooling.

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Clyde Vanel is Challenging Leroy Comrie in Queens; CHANGE IS GOOD

A look at politics in Queens...file under those in power, stay in power.

Or, vote for Clyde Vanel. I endorse Mr. Vanel.

Dueling campaign signs above a Run-DMC mural symbolize the heated City Council race between Clyde Vanel and Leroy G. Comrie Jr., the Democratic incumbent, in Queens.

September 12, 2009
A Stirring in St. Albans
Running on Obama Fuel, Upstart Takes on the Old Guard in Queens


Clyde Vanel’s yard signs were surprisingly ubiquitous. His billboards were “in your face.” And his bus-shelter ads were “tacky, tacky, tacky.”

That was the buzz at the Guy R. Brewer United Democratic Club one night in August. Right outside the club, the headquarters of the local political power structure, Mr. Vanel’s face grinned out onto a busy street in southeast Queens and greeted Councilman Leroy G. Comrie Jr.’s supporters as they filed in to plan their fight against Mr. Vanel, the upstart Democratic challenger.

“Takes a lot of heart,” said Richard Gibbs, a Comrie supporter and vice president of the United Black Men of Queens County, a civic group. He chuckled, adding, “Somebody’ll take a contract out on him if he keeps on going like that.”

Mr. Vanel, 35, said he knew the club would find the ads cheeky. Democratic Party leaders, he believed, viewed the very act of challenging their candidate as bad manners.

That is why Donnie Whitehead, the driving force behind Mr. Vanel’s campaign, says he is staking his reputation — built over decades as an unofficial neighborhood leader — on an inexperienced candidate he met just months ago. Traditionally, Mr. Whitehead says, just as the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ, the only way into office in southeast Queens has been with the blessing of the Brewer club and the man who has run it for 39 years, the former councilman Archie Spigner.

“No more only getting elected through Archie,” Mr. Whitehead said.

Grass-roots campaigners like Mr. Whitehead helped Barack Obama break that barrier last year, giving him a decisive primary victory in southeast Queens, the heart of black middle-class New York, even though party leaders backed Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The local race — for the City Council seat representing a section of southeast Queens — tests a question that has tantalized Obama campaigners around the country: Can they use the momentum of 2008 to shift the balance of power in their hometowns?

To Brewer club veterans, loyalty is paramount, paying dues is required, and the club is the fabric of community. To them, Mr. Vanel — who is from the area but works as a lawyer in Manhattan — came out of nowhere. And recently, Mr. Vanel’s opponents have drawn attention to his past troubles: personal debts and allegations that he created a fraudulent job-placement company in 2005.

Mr. Comrie, a mild-mannered man, was shocked that Mr. Whitehead — who campaigned for him in 2001, whose community programs his office has financed, whose wife has tutored Mr. Comrie’s daughter — started running his opponent’s campaign without even a phone call.

Mr. Comrie delivers to District 27 a disproportionate share of city resources and says voters would be crazy to throw him out for a promise of new political openness that he does not believe is sincere.

“Donnie Whitehead is not to be trusted,” he said. “It’s not about engaging the Obama people. He wants to control things.”

Indeed, Mr. Comrie asserts that Mr. Whitehead sabotaged the club’s best chance to engage young people: The club joined with the Obama volunteers for the general election, but instead of encouraging his young allies to become members, Mr. Whitehead told them it stood for stagnation. Mr. Whitehead said they drew their own conclusions.

Mr. Whitehead, 63, does not deny he wants power — for people left out of politics.

“Democracy is like making a stew,” he said, sitting in his garage in St. Albans, refitted as a campaign headquarters. “It should be mixed in the community, not in the club.”

The Brewer club was once the upstart. In the 1950s, blacks flocked to southeast Queens’ spacious single-family homes. Founded in 1958, the club beat the white-dominated Democratic Party’s candidate in 1964 to elect Queens’ first black assemblyman. The courtly Mr. Spigner, a former bus driver, became district leader in 1970 and Queens’ first black councilman in 1974.

Now in their 80s, some pioneering district leaders are still in office. One leader, Dora Young, elected in 1974, makes six figures as deputy city clerk. Mr. Vanel likes to note that all his life, either Mr. Spigner, 81, or Mr. Spigner’s former chief of staff, Mr. Comrie, 51, has held the Council seat.

Now, the community is changing. The Brewer club has struggled to attract many young members and Latino, South Asian and Haitian arrivals.

Mr. Whitehead had long wanted to challenge the club, and decided in February to back Mr. Vanel’s campaign after his first choice dropped out. They are an unusual pair: The slender Mr. Vanel, part owner of the East Village restaurant Permanent Brunch, wears khaki suits and trolls Facebook for supporters. The portly Mr. Whitehead, a retired subway station manager, prefers books to the Internet and dresses up in a dashiki.

In March, Mr. Vanel introduced himself to a crowd in Mr. Whitehead’s basement. He is one of 10 children of Haitian immigrants, he told them, a porter and a taxi driver who, in an enthusiastic but ill-informed burst of patriotism, named him Kleindinst Clyde Vanel after Richard Kleindienst, the Watergate-era attorney general.

Mr. Comrie can run again, Mr. Vanel reminded the crowd, only because he and fellow council members voted to change the term limits law to allow the mayor — and themselves — to run for third terms, overriding two voter referendums.

“How is it, if you represent a district that is 70 percent African-American, that you can take away their right to vote?” Mr. Vanel said.

“Mmm hmm!” the crowd responded.

Mr. Vanel reasoned that if he attracted some of the district’s 8,400 new Democratic voters who first cast ballots in November, he could win. The last time Mr. Comrie faced a primary, in 2001, just 16,000 of the district’s 160,000 residents voted.

In the spring, 12 Vanel volunteers worked 14-hour days to deliver letters to all 52,000 district Democrats who voted in 2008. They collected signatures to get Mr. Vanel on the ballot and asked people to put up yard signs. The team included Obama volunteers like Yvonne Belizario, 27, and local Howard University students recruited on Facebook.

Hugh Byfield, 81, a neighbor who first urged Mr. Whitehead to back Mr. Obama, had never campaigned before the presidential race. Now, he knocked on doors in a velour sweat suit and Nascar baseball cap. One June afternoon, Ruth Champen opened her door, and in his pillowy voice Mr. Byfield persuaded her to sign a petition and donate $10.

Mr. Vanel was impressed. “We don’t just have the grass roots,” he said. “We have the grass seed!”

Stumping in the Summer

As summer began, a confident Mr. Comrie reminded people he was running. In Jamaica, he visited a new mosque run by Guyanese immigrants who wanted street lights placed nearby, where a worshiper had been mugged. Mr. Comrie said tasks like this drew him into public service. “I like to show people how government can help them,” he said.

Mr. Comrie raked in union endorsements. Though he had raised $260,000, he had few ads on the streets. He slowed spending as he neared expense limits on candidates who take public financing; the $193,000 he had spent included tens of thousands on a run for borough president that was aborted after the term limits change. But in speeches, he emphasized his effectiveness, rattling off statistics on aid he had brought to the elderly, foreclosure victims and laborers.

Mr. Vanel focused on door-to-door talks. He ended up raising $107,071 and had $67,633 left in late summer. He was often short on specifics; at one forum he was stumped when asked to list the district’s police commanders.

His response to detractors was that after nearly 40 years of the same leadership, schools and neighborhoods were still struggling. “If you think it’s all good, vote for them,” he said.

By August, Mr. Vanel’s bald image smiled out from nearly 2,000 signs on supporters’ lawns. At the Brewer club, there was new urgency, and an article in The New York Times on Mr. Whitehead’s efforts prompted greater scrutiny of Mr. Vanel’s background.

Mr. Vanel acknowledges that creditors have sued him over debts totaling tens of thousands of dollars — not unusual, he said, for a restaurateur. In 2005, a lawsuit accused Mr. Vanel of having formed a sham company to win a city subcontract to help job seekers.

He never responded in court, and a judge ruled he had to return payments from the contract. The case was settled privately. Mr. Vanel said he did nothing wrong and ultimately paid $1,000.

Mr. Whitehead said he learned of the lawsuits from a reporter. He never checked Mr. Vanel’s background, he said, but judged him by talking and working with him.

“Whatever he says he’s going to do, he does,” Mr. Whitehead said, adding that young people attract disputes when they are “independent and aggressive.”

Mr. Comrie’s supporters have certainly been aggressive about criticizing Mr. Vanel. At the club in August, Mr. Spigner and others told supporters not to get “caught up into the hype” about the “empty suit” challenger.

One passionate speaker, Brian Simon, had been like a son to Mr. Whitehead — and was his first choice to challenge Mr. Comrie. Mr. Simon, 27, a senior aide to the local congressman, had planned to run, but after the term limits change could not bring himself to challenge an incumbent he respected. Now, he and his mentor were on opposite sides.

“Signs don’t vote,” he said, plugging Mr. Comrie’s clout. “We can’t let that go for a neophyte who may not know how to introduce a bill.”

Ms. Young, the longtime district leader, watched approvingly. Mr. Comrie could count on the club, she said, pointing to poll inspectors — picked by district leaders for $200 Election Day jobs — who were encouraged to take home Comrie lawn signs.

“They know if they don’t do this,” she confided, “they don’t work.” (Mr. Spigner denied this.)

Battle Lines Are Drawn

Mr. Vanel’s phone buzzed, and he whizzed off to Hollis Avenue in Mr. Whitehead’s minivan. There, Mr. Comrie was dedicating a street sign honoring Run-DMC, sharing a stage with two of the hip-hop pioneers. Above a Run-DMC mural, Mr. Vanel had rented a billboard — but now his face was covered with Run-DMC fliers and a Comrie sign.

When Comrie supporters refused to remove them, Ms. Belizario hoisted a Vanel sign above her head, shimmying to a DMC track. Soon, Natalie Cruz, 23, was dancing nearby with a Comrie sign.

“I stand behind him,” Ms. Cruz said. Mr. Comrie had financed her husband’s after-school program, Project Hope. Going door to door, she said, she found many young voters attracted to Mr. Vanel, wanting “fresh blood” or angry over term limits. But when she explained that Mr. Comrie had supported programs for their younger siblings, they changed their minds.

As for term limits, she said: “Undemocratic. If we don’t want him, we’ll vote him out.”

Mr. Vanel’s phone rang again. More hardball: The bus ad at the Brewer club had disappeared.

It was two weeks before Tuesday’s primary. With Mr. Obama embroiled in a battle over health care, Mr. Whitehead was tickled to have kicked up a fight of his own. “It’s heating up,” he murmured.

September 4, 2009
A Stirring in St. Albans
Emboldened by ’08 Race to Roil Waters at Home


The political reverberations still rumbling through southeast Queens — the heart of middle-class black New York — can be traced to a humble beginning. One afternoon in 2006, Hugh Byfield crossed the street to tell the most politically savvy person he knew, his neighbor Donnie Whitehead, about a black man he had seen on television.

This man, a politician, waded into adoring white crowds in rural Illinois, where Mr. Byfield, 81, thought a black man ought not go without security guards. “This man is going to be president,” Mr. Byfield said. “We have to support him.”

Mr. Whitehead, a retired subway station manager, rubbed his head, confused by the man’s name. “Barack Alabama?” he asked.
Donnie Whitehead, front, canvassing in St. Albans, Queens, with Clyde Vanel, who is challenging a two-term city councilman. (Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)

Two years later, Mr. Whitehead and a band of Queens campaign volunteers he had helped organize exulted in Barack Obama’s presidential victory. They had helped deliver a resounding upset win in southeast Queens in the Democratic primary, defying local political leaders, who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton. Then they had sent hundreds of campaigners to swing states to help clinch the presidency.

Mr. Whitehead, 63, had a lifelong aptitude for organizing people, but he had never so directly grasped the levers that put people in power. And many of the volunteers, like Mr. Byfield, a Jamaican immigrant, had never before worked for a political cause.

The confetti was still falling at the Guy R. Brewer United Democratic Club, a fluorescent-lit hall on a street with neat two-story houses and sandwich shops protected by bulletproof glass, but the Queens volunteers were looking ahead. They wanted to turn their amorphous sense of newfound power into tangible change close to home — better schools, fewer foreclosures, new blood in local government — and now they felt strong enough to try.

“A lot of these local politicians need to watch out,” Marvin Griffin, 28, a school administrator, shouted over the cheers. “This has brought a whole new crowd into politics.”

It is too soon to tell whether newly minted activists like these will change politics across the country. But it is clear that in southeast Queens, the campaign unleashed forces that have begun to shift the landscape.

Within weeks, Mr. Whitehead was wondering if he should dare to spend this precious capital — the momentum of a unique moment in history — on a new, perhaps more challenging mission. He was contemplating a frontal assault on the powerful local Democratic Party establishment. Critics and even some of its leaders call it the machine.

The Obama campaign resonated in southeast Queens, an overwhelmingly black and Democratic district where many voters felt they had made a difference in a national election for the first time. Neighborhoods like Hollis and St. Albans look like archetypal small-town America, with sidewalks, gardens and friendly neighbors. It is a bastion of black homeownership but has pockets of poverty and has been hit hard by foreclosures.

Like countless others from Harlem, the South and the Caribbean, Donald M. Whitehead moved to St. Albans for “a house you can walk around.”

Mr. Whitehead was born in Ahoskie, N.C., to a logger and a factory worker. A schoolteacher took him to civil rights marches; the soaring metaphors of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired him to read about history.

In 1964, he moved to Harlem, calling himself Donald 23X. He absorbed street politics from Malcolm X and insider politics from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. But he was too independent — some might say bullheaded — to sign on with any one group.

He and his wife, Jo-Ann Floyd-Whitehead — a math teacher he met at a dude ranch — moved to St. Albans in 1976. In the 1980s, they protested a racially charged killing in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Mr. Whitehead ran for the school board on a United African Party ticket.

But mainly, they became neighborhood troubleshooters. As activist public school parents, they tutored local children in their garage, refitted as a sunlit meeting place. If a favorite principal was fired or an after-school program closed, people went there to plan a response.

The Whiteheads and Mr. Byfield worked in 2007 to get Mr. Obama on the ballot. When a Queens campaign office opened in January 2008, the Whiteheads pulled in all their neighborhood contacts, as volunteers converging from around Queens tapped their own networks.

The effect was electric, said Joyce Johnson, the campaign’s New York State field director.

“When you don’t know politics, you’re not scared of it,” Ms. Johnson said. “They were not intimidated by the political establishment. They simply said, ‘They’re wrong.’ They tapped into community like I have never seen.”

Mr. Obama won 56 percent of the primary vote in the Sixth Congressional District, which covers most of southeast Queens. It was one of two districts in the state that gave him a majority, and thus three of the district’s five delegates in a race in which every one counted. It was a shock, Ms. Johnson said, because the pro-Clinton power structure was so strong. In southeast Queens, she said, the machine usually works.

The day after Mr. Obama won the presidency, Mr. Byfield took out an American flag he had found in his house when he moved in 1970. A citizen for 35 years, he had sent his four children to Ivy League colleges, but never felt moved to unfurl the flag. That night he hung it on his door; it had only 48 stars.

“For the first time,” he said, “I felt really part of America.”

But as the bunting was cleared from the Brewer Club — the power center of the local party establishment, which backed Mr. Obama in the general election — a new conflict was brewing.

Mr. Whitehead wanted new candidates to challenge the club-endorsed officials, elected year after year by the handful of party faithful who bother to vote and who populate the civic groups he had worked with over the years.

“Anytime you’re in a group where everybody’s over 60, it’s time for me to leave,” he said. “Most of these groups, every year they do a big, fancy dinner dance, and that’s it.” He chuckled. “Electric slide.”

Someone who won office by going door to door — really listening to people who had never been part of the political circuit — would be better at solving neighborhood problems, he believed.

The person he had in mind was Brian Simon, 27, another Obama campaigner. Mr. Simon was a senior aide to the local congressman, Gregory W. Meeks, but for several years Mr. Whitehead had been his mentor and a father figure. The two often talked politics at a diner late into the night. Mr. Simon wanted elected office so badly he had prayed for it at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He was eyeing a City Council seat.

But there was a catch. The Council had just approved Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s bid to revise term limits. Now, if Mr. Simon ran, he would be challenging a kindly man, an insider who was expert at delivering city money to his district: the two-term councilman, Leroy Comrie, who had voted to free Mr. Bloomberg, and himself, to run again.

In effect, Mr. Simon would be taking on the whole Queens Democratic organization. To party veterans, it is a well-oiled mechanism to turn out voters; detractors contend that the officials it helps elect reward loyalty with jobs and financing for favorite organizations, stifling debate.

Mr. Whitehead recalls Mr. Simon worrying that if he challenged the incumbent, the party could sabotage his career. Mr. Simon strongly denies this.

The obstacles only tantalized Mr. Whitehead. Overturning term limits approved twice in voter referendums was tantamount to stripping New Yorkers of the right to vote, he said. But he would not pressure Mr. Simon.

So in December, when dozens of volunteers fired up for the next mission met in the Whiteheads’ basement — they no longer fit in the garage — Mr. Whitehead and Mr. Simon proposed something much less confrontational. The volunteers would create the Frederick Douglass Institute, a grass-roots research center, to study issues — policing, education, political accountability — and promote policies they liked.

Deep down, Mr. Whitehead still wanted to try the impossible. “You have to believe in a dream world,” he said.

In Washington for the inauguration, Mr. Whitehead surveyed the crowds.

“All the people in power” thought Mr. Obama should wait his turn, Mr. Whitehead remarked. But Mr. Obama “understood the zeitgeist,” he said, and picked the right moment.

The wheels in Mr. Whitehead’s mind were turning.

Back home, he found a neighborhood in crisis. A judge had upheld the term-limits change, and people were angry. On his block, several people had lost jobs, and foreclosures had crowded three generations into a single house.

Now he pushed Mr. Simon hard. “He read to me about ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ ” Mr. Simon recalled. Mr. Obama too had quoted the phrase of Dr. King.

Mr. Whitehead recalls saying, “If they could tell you to sit down for four years and be quiet, then you’re finished. If you’re not a warrior at 27, when are you going to be a warrior?”

Mr. Simon would not budge. He says he never feared retaliation, but thought running would be “toxic” and divisive and could deprive the district of an effective legislator. “I put my community first,” he says.

Mr. Whitehead reminded him that he had nothing against Mr. Comrie, saying, “It’s not the individual, it’s the principle.”

In February, City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., running for mayor, spoke in the Whiteheads’ basement. The volunteers noted their new clout, and the visit attracted newcomers. One was Clyde Vanel, 35. He wanted to run for City Council.

Mr. Vanel was the son of Haitian immigrants. A lawyer in Manhattan and an owner of an East Village restaurant, Permanent Brunch, he was not an obvious partner for Donald 23X.

But they talked for hours. Both saw a one-time chance to attract new voters, and Mr. Vanel won Mr. Whitehead’s highest praise: “A hard worker.”

Mr. Simon pleaded with Mr. Whitehead not to deploy his network for Mr. Vanel. He wanted to run in 2013. Mr. Whitehead realized he might have to abandon the man he had nurtured.

“It’s like if you’re sitting on a nail,” said Ronald Summers Sr., a transit employee and an Obama volunteer. “You see an opportunity to get up off that nail, and someone says, I want you to sit back down and wait four years.”

The deciding moment came when people walked into the Whiteheads’ basement with a message from the Democratic club. Mr. Whitehead will not say who the people were, and club leaders deny sending anyone. The visitors delivered this request: Stay neutral.

Mr. Whitehead says the club could offer him nothing: “We want a free, fair and democratic society. In other words, we don’t want anything.”

The next day, he called Mr. Vanel and said, “Look, let’s start work.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed reporting.

Leroy Comrie:
A ‘Son’ And Successor Speaks Out

About His Political Mentor
By MICHELLE SELLERS, Southeast Queens Press

Come Jan. 1 2002, Southeast Queens’ District 27 will have a new Councilman – his name is Leroy Comrie.

Whether it is on the sidelines, in the background or right up front; Leroy Comrie has been Archie Spigner’s right-hand man

Few people know Archie Spigner
like he does – Comrie has worked closely with him since 1983.

"You get to know a person after 18-plus years. I am a frequent guest in his home, a car-pool companion to many meetings and events, a confidant, a student, a third son and now his successor," Comrie said.

When speaking of his political mentor, Comrie said "He shared with me how to be affective and is sharing with me how to be affective [in the City Council]. He is a
person that has a keen sense of the dynamic of a situation. He
does his homework and is never unprepared. He’s willing to listen to reason. He loves to debate. He likes to write and truly loves the City. He believes in the essence and beauty of New York and is working hard to represent this district."

According to Comrie, Spigner never takes anything at face value — he always queries.

"He has worked hard for equality
to ensure all are given equal treatment and that the district would have as much as or more than other districts," Comrie said. "He worked hard to be respected. He made sure he understood protocol in government. He is a prolific reader who liked to challenge people intellectually and is never afraid to enter into new areas. Archie is a lot tougher, smarter and hardworking than his detractors would have the world believe. He has never backed away from an issue in which he has believed.

"In the end," Comrie said, "[Spigner’s] legacy is enormous. We will not let him go quietly ino that good night, though. His knowledge and passion for government will be utilized by many of us seeking to make this a better city."

Looking ahead Comrie said "I anticipate that it is going to be a lot of work. We are in a changed world. There are budget deficits. It’s almost like going back to the 1970’s when there was a time of extreme need in the city, the government and the country. Throughout this my goal is to make effective change to protect the district."

Deputy Majority Leader Archie Spigner
Southeast Queens Press

Councilman Archie Spigner has been a member of the City Council since 1974 and has risen to the post of deputy majority leader, the second highest position in the council. His legislative responsibilities have included chairmanships of the committees on the Legislative Office of Budget Review, Economic Development and, presently, Housing and Buildings. He also serves on the council’s budget negotiating team and is liaison for the council’s 14-member Queens delegation. He was elected to the board of the National League of Cities, the major advocacy group for America’s urban areas, and now serves on its advisory board.
deputymajorityleader.gif (25726 bytes)

He has introduced a wide range of legislation: creation of the Environmental Control Board, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and Economic Development Zones; increased penalties against non-conforming uses and illegal conversions of residential areas;
tax abatements for residential housing; unit pricing in drug stores; increased participation of minority- and women-owned businesses for city contracts and tougher fire, construction and lead paint safety requirements.

In the community, he was a leader in the efforts that led to the construction of York College in Jamaica, the Addabbo Federal Office Building, the Archer Avenue subway, the Jamaica Multi-Service Center and health clinics in Southeast Queens. His actions as chair of the council’s Housing and Buildings Committee resulted in the building of a large number of new housing units in Southeast Queens and throughout the city. In fact, under his chairmanship, the city’s $5 billion housing program was started. He has also affected funding for street and sewer construction in Southeast Queens, as well as new public libraries.

He was past chair of the Queens United Negro College Fund and the Boy Scouts Campaign. He is a board member of the United Black Men of Queens and of Jamaica Hospital, and is a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity and the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in St. Albans.

Before his election to the City Council, Spigner was active in Local 1056 A.T.U. and also worked closely with A. Philip Randolph in forming the Negro American Labor Council, which fought to open up trade unions and apprenticeship opportunities for African-Americans.

As executive member of the Guy R. Brewer United Democratic Club, he was instrumental in electing the first African-American Supreme Court justice, assembly member, state senator and congress member in the borough of Queens. Also, Spigner played key roles in the campaigns of David Dinkins, Percy Sutton, Carl McCall, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Floyd Flake and numerous others.

He believes in a strong public education system and has funded capital improvements for a significant number of schools. Spigner is a graduate of Queens College, where he also did post-grad work. He represents the communities of Hollis, Jamaica, Queens Village, St. Albans, Addisleigh Park, Rosedale and Cambria Heights in Southeast Queens.

He is married to Christine Spigner, who was formerly chair of the board of trustees of the Queens Borough Public Library. They have a son, a grandson and two great-granddaughters.