President’s Perspective: Take stock of ‘soft’ skills

So much of students’ learning and achievement is measured through their performance on state and national standardized assessments. As a result, school boards often spend considerable time reviewing the results of these assessments, identifying performance gaps across various demographics and content areas, and directing the development of plans to address those gaps. Tests and performance assessments however, only present part of the student achievement story.

Employers increasingly lament that some of the greatest hiring challenges they face are not in technical or content area knowledge, but in the “soft” skills. Positivity, punctuality, problem solving, and the ability to work in a team setting and communicate effectively are all essential skills for success in the 21st century workplace. 

I was recently introduced to a program from the Plain Local Schools in Canton, Ohio, called “Guys with Ties.” This innovative program provides third-grade boys the opportunity to learn and apply soft skills. Each of the “guys” who greeted me had a firm handshake, could don a tie with ease, and explained to me how the program instills pride in each student, encourages a positive attitude, and teaches an invaluable workplace-friendly skill set. Canton’s Plain Local Schools saw a gap in students’ soft skills and stepped in with programming resources to help close it. While this program targets only boys, the idea of helping students develop soft skills is a winning one from which all students could benefit. 

At NSBA’s December Board meeting, a diverse group of public high school students shared with us their perceptions of equity in today’s schools. One student cited that, despite the challenges he faced outside of school, having an adult at school who believed in him was an important part of his success. Another student mentioned the challenges of learning in a competitive class ranking system. He felt that such systems are the antithesis to a collaborative learning environment. 

Not surprisingly, the students viewed access to resources as vital to achieving educational equity. What was surprising was the students’ assertion that possessing and having opportunities to develop soft skills are high on their list. 

When your board next meets, consider how you’re addressing this skills gap. Are you discussing the importance of students’ soft skills proficiency and how to foster that development? What other programs could your school board establish to ensure all students have equitable soft skills learning opportunities? From a broader perspective, what could your school board establish to ensure all students have equitable access to other resources and learning opportunities? 

A highlight of NSBA’s recent board meeting was the approval of our definition of “educational equity” to help guide the association’s work: 

We affirm in our actions that each student can, will, and shall learn. Educational equity is the intentional allocation of resources, instruction, and opportunities according to need. We recognize that based on factors including but not limited to disability, race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, students are deprived of equitable educational opportunities. This requires that discriminatory practices, prejudices, and beliefs be identified and eradicated.

The next time your board meets, revisit your vision statement for ensuring all students in your district have equitable learning opportunities. If you don’t have such a statement or definition, consider establishing one as a crucial starting point.

Kevin E. Ciak (kciak@nsba.org) is NSBA’s 2017-18 president and president of New Jersey’s Sayreville School Board. Follow Ciak on Twitter @Kevin_NSBA.

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