Soft Skills Are 'Hard As a Rock'

I must admit I'm perplexed about the controversy over whether so-called "soft skills" such as work ethic, collaboration and critical thinking should be taught in school. This debate should be a non-starter. What's so soft about skills valued by Fortune 500 companies?

According to a report by the Associated Press (AP) released in June 2013, "companies increasingly want skills that don't show up in a college transcript or a sit-down interview."

"What the employers want is a well-rounded student," said Jean Manning-Clark, director of the Colorado School of Mines' career center, in that same AP report. "The ones that get 10 to 12 job offers are the ones who have strong soft skills."

Every company looks for a different mix of skills and experience in the employees it hires. In today's business climate, it's no longer enough to be a functional expert. To accompany the 'core competencies' needed to fulfill a specific job, there are certain "other" skills companies look for in a potential hire.

Winston Churchill said, "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference." As the AP survey determined, businesses look for a good attitude, as well as other personal qualities and habits, in the new employees they hire. Companies value so-called soft skills because research suggests and experience shows that these skills can be just as important an indicator of job performance as "hard" skills. Getting a good job today means bringing finely honed collaboration skills to the workplace. Organizations seek employees who are agile, adaptable and creative at solving problems -- all skills that today's students need to be successful.

According to the American Management Association (AMA), executives believe that to grow their businesses they need a workforce fully equipped with skills beyond content knowledge. To get and keep a job today students need to develop cognitive as well as non-cognitive skills. The competencies defined by as Deeper Learning competencies describe learning experiences that address both the demonstration of content mastery and the transference or application of that knowledge. Deeper Learning also includes demonstrating skills employers find valuable -- collaboration, communications, creativity, innovation, problem solving and critical thinking. We don't really need a debate over soft versus hard skills. Let's face it. We need both skill sets as learning targets in schools today!

So why are we spending time arguing whether it's a worthwhile skill to learn how to communicate or collaborate? It's time to move past this arbitrary debate and work together to ensure students acquire the knowledge and develop skills and attributes that provide the best chance to succeed in college and career.

I understand that it's difficult to assess non-cognitive skills -- just as it's difficult to assess college readiness. At New Tech Network (NTN), we choose to focus on student success as the measure of a school's success and this past year developed a new School Success Rubric. We asked ourselves, what do we want our students to experience and learn while at school? This resulted in our new framework that has significant implications about what learning needs to look like to prepare students for postsecondary success.

One of the things that distinguish highly successful schools is what the students experience while on campus -- in short, the culture of the school. NTN has defined a positive school culture as one that connects, engages and challenges each student. We need to provide our students with a foundation of knowledge that spans a wide variety of disciplines. "Students need a context for learning," said Paul Curtis, New Tech's Director of School Quality. "They need to understand the connections between areas of knowledge so they can reason, problem-solve and develop sound arguments or decisions."

Students also need to graduate with a set of well-documented skills necessary for academic and career achievement. Lastly, students need to develop the attributes of success, including a growth mindset, persistence and adaptability.

We believe the success of schools should be measured by the college and career readiness of its students -- and that means providing our students with the type of education that teaches them both hard and soft skills.