The Questions Get Tougher For P21

by Robert Pondiscio
December 4th, 2009

Common Core’s aggressive skepticism about the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) is slowly emerging as one of the great David vs. Goliath stories in education.   The tiny Washington-based nonprofit, which is less than two years old, has been relentless in questioning the whole concept of 21st century skills.  A big piece in next week’s Ed Week by Stephen Sawchuk gives big play and credibility to one of Common Core’s more troubling charges: that P21 is “a veiled attempt by technology companies—which make up the bulk of the group’s membership—to gain more influence over the classroom.”  Sawchuk writes:

Although business-education partnerships are by no means new, P21 stands apart for the number of its partners, their influence in the technology world, and the sheer size and scope of the work it is trying to perform.  And for that reason, it is worth asking: What is P21? And how does the group plan to respond to criticism as states adopt its prescription for student learning?

The piece also examines the background of P21′s executive director Ken Kay, a veteran technology policy advocate.  The most interesting new tidbit:  “According to P21’s publicly available 990, a federal form required of 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations, the group used to share an address with Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, a Washington-based technology lobbying firm,” Sawchuck reports.   So what do all those technology companies get out of being part of the Partnership?

In exchange for dues, the member organizations receive several benefits, Mr. Kay explained. They become part of “a proactive process for creating a new vision of education.” They have new networking opportunities and better access to federal policymakers and state leaders. Finally, they can access “early intelligence” about where the education system may be headed in order to help ensure that products and services align with that vision.

P21 spent “in excess of $1 million of its revenue” two years ago to promote 21st-century skills, EdWeek reports.  About half of the sum went to E-Luminate, “a marketing and communications-consulting firm of which Mr. Kay is the co-founder and chief executive officer. The firm has a contract with P21 to handle day-to-day operations of the organization,” Sawchuk notes.

To be sure, P21 the questionable 21st Century Skills meme is still an education bumper sticker — a phrase people throw around without thinking much about.  But thanks to Common Core and Lynne Munson, the chorus of skeptics is growing louder and louder.


  1. Very interesting piece by Stephen Sawchuk, and great continued work by Common Core.

    I am suspicious of anyone who says we have to be completely up to date. We always live in a combination of times–with influences from the past–and we may choose whether or not we want to take part in the “latest.” But P21 seems to think that anything short of the latest is dated–that all schools and districts should align themselves with its “21st century” plan.

    Those who do so get rewards–and not just from P21.

    In New York City, where almost all public schools are suffering budget cuts, three “21st century schools” together received $500,000 from the DOE, according to the New York Daily News.

    Now, $500,000 for three schools isn’t an enormous amount. But, as you’d expect, they are supposed to use it for anything that will “align” them with the DOE’s “21st century vision.” At least one of these schools is using these funds to purchase computers and the “latest” software.

    Latest isn’t the same as greatest.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — December 4, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  2. “About half of the sum went to E-Luminate, “a marketing and communications-consulting firm of which Mr. Kay is the co-founder and chief executive officer.” Isn’t this some sort of conflict of interest? Ken Kay, executive director of P21 and getting a half million dollar contract for a company he founded? Heck, this guy would fit in perfectly with two recently indicted former Speakers of the House in Massachusetts. Where’s the outrage?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 4, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

  3. What is says to me is that P21 is more or less exactly what Common Core has been saying: a PR, marketing and lobbying outfit aimed at penetrating the education market on behalf of technology companies. It’s a Potemkin village. The name on the door says “education.” But the actual mission of the organization is something very different.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 4, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

  4. Robert,

    Sounds like a wolf in sheep’s clothing to me, not to mention a fraud.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 4, 2009 @ 7:52 pm

  5. Although a fan of the Core Knowledge principles and its approach to education, I am disappointed that such an ad hominem approach would be taken to this issue. If P21 is wrong, CC should be able to argue with them on their merits – not some tax filing or the former job of a P21 employee, etc.

    As someone who works for a tech company, I can tell you we’re NOT finding people with the background we need to hire coming out of our schools, and those people are NOT going to be able to find jobs. Now, that’s not the be all and end all of education of course, but its not irrelevant either.

    If CC can help advance the debate about what 21st century education should be about, that’s great. If it’s just going to engage in ad hominem attacks, it will become irrelevant, and that will be a great loss to our educational system.

    Comment by DCLawyer — December 11, 2009 @ 11:55 am

  6. I don’t speak for Common Core, but I will admit I don’t see how this adds up to an ad hominem attack. It seems well within the bounds of reason to look at what P21′s interests are — whether they are interested in education, selling more gadgets, or “doing well by doing good.” Sawchuck’s piece in Edweek makes it clear this is not about former jobs being held by the P21 leadership but current jobs. Ken Kay’s PR and marketing firm has contracted with P21 to run P21. In other words, P21 *is* a PR and marketing firm, and they work out of a tech lobbyist’s office. Surely that can’t be irrelevant in examining their motivation.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 11, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

  7. Thanks for the information on P12 education. When we do not provide a well rounded foundation for education and go directly towards the “outcome” society’s engineers want to achieve, we are following a socialist/fascist model where human beings are the tool of industry or the state. The goal is for the genius and individuality of man to be manifested with the help of education. In outcome based, in this case technological based education, man is groomed for the purpose of meeting the needs of industry, not the individual.

    Comment by Jennifer McMillan — December 12, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

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