The 7 Skills Needed to Close the Global Achievement Gap: Why American Students Are Falling Behind

6 min readFeb 25, 2019


In his book, The Global Achievement Gap, Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need — and What We Can Do About It, Tony Wagner makes the case that the model for American education is not relevant in a 21st century competitive global economy. He concludes that ever since the publication more than fifty years ago of Why Johnny Can’t Read by Rudolph Flesch, the 20th century educational focus on the “Three R’s” prepared students for a world of work in which these skills were sufficient for much of the workforce. In the 21st century, mastery of the basic skills of reading, writing, and math is no longer enough. Increasingly, almost any job that pays more than minimum wage today requires employees who know how to solve a range of intellectual and technical problems.

American public education was based on the assumption only the small percentage of students in college preparatory classes needed to learn how to reason, problem-solve, analyze, and so on while the majority of students were taught the “Three R’s” in preparation for a world of work where they would work not with their heads but their hands. Today’s students must be taught how to think — all students, not just those labeled as gifted and talented. Work, learning, and citizenship in the 21st century demand that we all know how to reason, analyze, weigh evidence, and solve problems. Schools haven’t changed while the world has. Our schools are not failing; they are obsolete. Students need new skills for college, careers, and citizenship.

Data indicates U.S. schools are lagging behind their international counterparts.

  • U.S. high school graduation rates of 70 percent are well below those in Japan (93 percent), Denmark (96 percent), and Poland (92 percent).
  • Among those who employ young people right out of high school, nearly 50 percent report their overall preparation was “deficient.”
  • More than one third of students entering college must take remedial courses.
  • Only one in three high school graduates are ready for college with rates much lower for poor and minority students.
  • More than half of college professors report what is taught in high school does not prepare students for college.
  • An estimated 85 percent of current jobs and almost 90 percent of the fastest-growing and best-paying jobs now require postsecondary education.
  • In the 25–44 age group, the U.S. now ranks 10th among industrial nations in our college completion rate.
  • Over the next 25 years nearly half of the projected job growth will be concentrated in occupations associated with higher education and skill levels.
  • Tens of millions more of our students and adults will be less able to qualify for higher paying jobs. Instead, they will be competing not only with each other and millions of newly arrived immigrants but also with equally (or better) skilled workers in lower-wage economies around the world.
  • Twenty-five percent of Americans that start high school do not graduate.
  • Entering the workforce without a high school diploma means an unemployment rate three-and-a-half times the rate of those with a college degree. And for those who do find full-time work, they earn less than half of what a college graduate makes.
  • Thirty percent of high school graduates do not go on to college right after graduation. In the workforce, a high school graduate earns on average more than someone without a diploma, but still only 60 percent of what a college graduate makes each year.
  • Forty-three percent of students who start college will not graduate in 6 years. Women graduate at a six-percent-higher rate than men within six years, and outnumber men in higher education by a ratio of 3-to-2.
  • Among the age group 25- to 34-year-olds, all of the following nations now have a larger percent of college graduates than the U.S.: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Wagner identifies three factors that have altered the education landscape making the U.S. methodology obsolete for 21st century students as learners and citizens in a global economy. Three fundamental transformations that have taken place in a very short period of time are:

  • the rapid evolution of the new global “knowledge economy” and the ways in which all types of work are changing;
  • the sudden and dramatic shift from a world characterized by a limited amount and availability of information to world of information flux and glut;
  • the profound impact of media and technology on how young people learn, relate to the world, and to each other.

For his book The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner interviewed scores of business leaders and discovered seven key abilities that modern employers look for when hiring. He contends that our outdated schools do not teach these skills. In a global economy that runs on innovation and curiosity, our schools still teach to standardized tests. Wagner identified seven skills to meet the challenge of a global economy and begin to close the global achievement gap:

1. Critical Thinking And Problem Solving

2. Collaboration Across Networks And Leading By Influence

3. Agility And Adaptability

4. Initiative And Entrepreneurship

5. Effective Oral And Written Communication

6. Accessing And Analyzing Information

7. Curiosity And Imagination

  • Critical thinking and problem solving — Teachers spend many hours on practice questions, test-taking strategies, and helping students memorize facts to prepare students to pass multiple-choice tests. In a workplace more complicated than ever, solutions to real life problems are not multiple-choice.
  • Leading By Influence — Students spend most of their school time learning in isolation. The world of work now requires employees to work in teams to accomplish company goals. Students must be prepared to present their ideas to others and advocate their position in developing a solution.
  • Agility and Adaptability — There is only one right answer in school. In the world of work, there is no perfect answer. Often, the answer is quickly invalidated by rapidly changing technology. 21st century employees need to be flexible, adaptable, and lifelong learners.
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism — The business model has changed. It is no longer a top-down institution with bosses in command. Employees are expected to bring skills to the workplace that allow them to figure out how to overcome obstacles. The teacher-as-boss model used in school teaches learners to focus on the assigned task but ill-prepared to think beyond the assigned task.
  • Effective Oral and Written Conversation — Most of the time in the classroom is direct instruction with the teacher talking and the students listening. Students need more focus of developing the written and verbal skills required to make clear and precise presentations.
  • Accessing and Analyzing Data — While students have limited data in the classroom: a textbook, lecture notes, and the web, the unlimited data from computers and smartphones make it essential for students to discern valid information from misinformation.
  • Curiosity and Imagination — The ability to ask good questions is the number one skill employers look for. 21st century employees must have the ability to think fast and develop imaginative solutions to problems in a rapidly changing world.

Read more about these skills at

A New Context for Schooling

While Johnny and Javier and Shaniqua are learning how to read — at least at a basic level — they are not learning how to think or care about what they read; nor are they learning to clearly communicate ideas orally and in writing. They memorize names and dates in history, but they cannot explain the larger significance of historical events. And they may be learning how to add, subtract, and multiply, but they have no understanding of how to think about numbers. Not knowing how to understand statistics or gauge probability, many students cannot make sense of the graphs and charts they’ll see every day in the newspaper. They are required to memorize a wide range of scientific facts, but very few know how to apply the scientific method — how to formulate a hypothesis, test it, and analyze the results — a way of thinking that is at the very heart of many kinds of analysis and research. The longer our children are in school, the less curious they become. Effective communication, curiosity, and critical thinking skills are much more than just the traditional desirable outcomes of a liberal arts education. U.S. students face an exponential increase of readily available information, new technologies that are constantly changing, and more complex societal challenges such as global warming. Work, learning, and citizenship in the 21st century demand that we all know how to think — to reason, analyze, weigh evidence, problem solve. These are no longer skills that only the elites in a society must master; they are essential survival skills for all of us. Effective communication, curiosity, and critical thinking skills are much more than just the traditional desirable outcomes of a liberal arts education. They are essential competencies and habits of mind for life in the 21st century.




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