A hard look at soft skills

by Susan Bergtraum

On Board Online • September 18, 2017

By Susan Bergtraum
NYSSBA President

If your school district is like most others, chances are you have teams of teachers and administrators poring over the results of last April’s grade 3-8 English language arts and math exams. Your leadership team understandably wants to know which students are proficient in those core subjects and which are not – and why. You want to know how your students’ academic skills stack up against peer districts. You await data about achievement gaps among different groups of students.

But what about your students’ “soft skills?” This term refers to personal attributes that enable us to successfully interact with others – traits such as integrity, communication, courtesy, responsibility, professionalism, flexibility, collaboration and teamwork. Do you know how your students are doing in those areas?

New data suggests that the public cares more about the teaching of soft skills than test scores. In August, Phi Delta Kappan (PDK) released the results of its latest annual national poll of the “Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” which it has been conducting since 1969. This year’s survey, for the first time, polled a random sample of New Yorkers and found that 85 percent of the 628 adult residents surveyed believe how well schools help students learn soft skills such as being cooperative, respectful of others and persistence in solving problems is an important factor in determining school quality.

No other factor was rated higher than soft skills. How well students do on standardized tests was at the bottom of the list of factors in school quality.

I was somewhat surprised but rather pleased by this finding. The desire for schools to imbue students with soft skills has always made perfect sense to me. As the U.S. continues to move toward a knowledge-based global economy, soft skills have become increasingly vital. We can arm our students with knowledge of science and skills in math. But if they can’t work together in teams, or can’t communicate and get along with others, or aren’t organized, then how can we expect them to translate those hard skills to college and the workplace?

In August 2016, LinkedIn published the results of a year-long study it conducted on soft skills. It found that 58 percent of hiring managers believed the lack of soft skills among candidates is hindering their company’s productivity.

The study came up with a listing of the top 10 soft skills that were the most sought after by employers. The number one skill? Communication. Employers want workers who are active listeners and possess excellent presentation and writing abilities. Second? Organization. Employers want people who can plan and implement projects and general work tasks.

Rounding out the top 10 were teamwork skills, punctuality, critical thinking, social skills, creativity, interpersonal communication, adaptability, and a friendly personality.

Success in higher education also relies on similar characteristics. College freshmen living on their own for the first time need to be able to manage their time, meet deadlines, get along with roommates and demonstrate responsibility.

Such characteristics are strongly influenced by a child’s upbringing. But public schools should also play a part.

Project-based learning is one way to develop soft skills. Students work in teams for an extended period of time to investigate and arrive at solutions to a specific complex question, problem or challenge.

Also, we need to model behavior for our students. That includes board members, administrators, teachers and other staff.  If the adults in our schools regularly demonstrate such traits as courtesy, respect and teamwork, and openly communicate, students will see the value of these skills and learn to apply them to their own lives.

The PDK poll also indicates that the public wants metrics on soft skills. Eighty-four percent of the New Yorkers polled said students should be assessed on soft skills, and two-thirds believe schools should be held accountable for measurements of student’ soft skills.

This is a relatively new area of assessment. One leading light is the Catalina Foothills School District (CFSD) in Tucson, Arizona. It uses rubrics to assess student skills in seven areas, including critical and creative thinking, self-direction, communication, systems thinking, cultural competence, teamwork, and leadership.

One resource is the Framework for 21st Century Learning, which is available at www.p21.org.

Burgeoning technology has enhanced educational opportunities and made it vital to place emphasis on soft skills, as well.

Being a good school board member isn’t about having all the answers. It’s about asking the right questions. Ask your superintendent how your school district is striving to develop students’ soft skills and what metrics are available to measure progress.

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