• Gain a basic working knowledge of the education community context, language, current education strategies, and student success factors.
  • Become a more thoughtful, contributing participant in community education transformation conversations.




This section of the Toolkit offers a primer on current strategies and “school reform” initiatives related to school transformation, including but not limited to Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Common Core, and how educators and others are defining student success for college, career, and life. The following are brief sketches of some of the important concepts and systems currently affecting schools across the United States. For further research, this section includes – where possible – the addresses of websites with additional information.

It is important to realize that teachers and education administrators are bombarded by new methods and movements all the time, and may be skeptical about new ideas. Although improved state-level standards like Common Core has been a major topic for several years, the major curricula and student assessment changes that come with it are only now reaching some districts and schools. Similarly, “college and career readiness” / 21st Century skill attainment is gaining more and more acceptance across the country. Educators will likely be more receptive to an approach that emphasizes how new strategies such as PBL will help them to achieve these shifts and meet the student success goals of the programs below (see the Toolkit section “Sharing the Value of Project Management with Educators” for more messages for educators about these topics).


Beginning in 2009, governors and state school chiefs from nearly every state in the U.S. came together to develop a common set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy. Released a year later, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have as of 2014 been adopted by 44 states (though a few have since repealed or replaced it), the District of Columbia, and four territories as their official state education standards.

Although the term CCSS is not used in all states (see below), there are many similarities, and the learning goals for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level are often similar. The calendar for full implementation of the standards has varied by state, but generally all adopting states are now implementing the CCSS. States and individual school districts (depending on local process) remain responsible for designing curricula, selecting learning strategies, and developing many of the local assessments. This has led to the development of different types of curricula, tools, and resources.

reading workbooks

The process to develop the CCSS specifically included the writing of college and career readiness standards or “21st Century Skills attributes” (see below), which were incorporated into the K12 standards in the final version of the Common Core. The CCSS stress critical thinking, reasoning, conceptual understanding, text reading, and collaboration.

The adoption and implementation of CCSS has become controversial in several states and among some teachers and parents. However, it is important to remember that, as NPR reports, “The Common Core standards don’t specify the use of curricula, textbooks, workbooks or lesson plans… The creation of new materials, the repackaging of old materials, and the training of teachers to teach to the new standards within a few short years are all causing adjustment issues.”

The CCSS are a set of standards, and so methods to assess students against those standards are being developed separately. Several states, including California and North Carolina, joined a group called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to create new assessment tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. A different group of states formed the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which is developing its own set of assessments. Other states are developing their own individual assessments. Many of these assessments are being used for the first time in the 2014-15 school year. Results on these new more challenging tests are likely to be lower than those on earlier tests, so there will continue to be a public discussion about the CCSS and how schools can best implement Common Core. It is also worth noting that several states have adopted standards that differ from the Common Core in small and large ways but still largely reflect the need for conceptual understanding, reasoning, and collaboration that undergird CCSS. These state systems use different names and terminology, such as the “Idaho Core Standards,” and “Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards.” It may take a visit to the state’s education department website or a question to a local superintendent to discover the terminology in a specific community.

Certain other states (at least 9 as of this date) initially adopted CCSS but have since repealed or replaced them. However, in some of those states, current standards under law remain those of Common Core (perhaps until they are replaced) or very similar ones. Minnesota has adopted the English Language Arts Common Core standards, but not those for Mathematics.

Click here for more information


Over the past decade or so, there has been increasing recognition that “college readiness” extends well beyond the high school transcript and entrance exam results. Research shows emphatically that key cognitive strategies and academic behaviors that enable students to learn content from a range of disciplines are just as important as content knowledge in determining if a student will succeed in college.

Moreover, a vocal contingent of educators, advocates, policymakers, and employers have protested the movement of the United States’ educational systems away from preparing students for skilled careers, whether or not that leads to a four-year college degree. Rather than separating career preparation from the “college track” – and therefore pushing students into one or another direction and limiting their future options – the momentum has instead shifted toward building “college and career readiness,” acknowledging that schools can impart the content knowledge and learning skills that will prepare students for multiple future pathways.

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), a coalition of leaders from the business, education, and government sectors, has taken the additional step of developing a framework of what students should know and be able to do to succeed in college, career, and life in the 21st century. The Framework for 21st Century Learning combines a discrete focus on student outcomes (a blending of specific skills, content knowledge, expertise, and literacies) with innovative support systems to help students master the multi-dimensional abilities required of them in the 21st century and beyond.

P21 developed the Framework for 21st Century Learning below to define the key elements (content, skills, and cross-cultural themes) that all students must possess to graduate college, career and life ready. The graphic represents both student outcomes (as represented by the arches of the rainbow) and critical learning support systems (as represented by the pools at the bottom) that are required for 21st Century learning. All of the elements are interconnected and interact with each other in teaching and learning.

The diagram (see figure 1) also illustrates that the Framework builds on a base of core academic subject knowledge. All 21st century skills can and should be taught in the context of core academic subjects.

While the Common Core State Standards do not explicitly address every skill in the P21 Framework, several areas (such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration) are strongly represented throughout. P21 developed a Common Core Toolkit which has detailed information about about the intersection of the common core state standards and the Framework.

Click here for more information:



Even with the spread of new standards across the U.S. that require deeper content knowledge and the ability to apply those skills in school and the working world, some education advocates urge that educators push students even further, so that they develop the mindsets and competencies that they will need to thrive in new situations, such as self-control, perseverance, people skills, creative thinking, effective communication, collaboration, lifelong learning, and the ability to transfer knowledge and skills learned in one setting into new situations. Many different terms have been used to refer to learning inclusive of these competencies, but it has come to be called “deeper learning” by some of its leading advocates.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has led and supported much of the work on deeper learning as part of a national initiative, has identified six sets of skills that students gain:

  1. Mastery of core academic content
  2. Critical thinking and problem-solving
  3. Effective communication
  4. Ability to work collaboratively
  5. Learning how to learn
  6. Academic mindsets

Clearly then, deeper learning bears a close relationship to 21st Century Learning, college and career pathways, work-based learning, and the new education standards in many states. Project-Based Learning is an important strategy for teaching and learning these competencies, and can be an excellent methodology for schools.

The Hewlett Foundation’s website has a great deal of further information on deeper learning, as well as links to ongoing research and evaluation:



A school that has embraced a career pathway or academy design prepares students for a full range of post-graduation opportunities by bringing together strong academics, career-based classroom learning, and real-world workplace experience to prepare students for college, career, and life. Generally situated at the high school level, pathways offer students a rigorous academic curriculum integrated with a career focus and work-based learning opportunities in and out of the classroom, such as job shadowing, apprenticeships, internships, and professional skill-building. Often, these components are joined by support services for students, including counseling and supplemental instruction in reading, writing, and mathematics that help them master the academic and technical learning.

All pathways, by design, offer students a college preparatory education, leaving the door open for students to pursue any career goal or interest after high school.

Different states have adopted college and career pathways to differing degrees. In California, this approach has been named “Linked Learning” and is being implemented by dozens of school districts and supported by a growing infrastructure of funding and other resources.

Click here for more information.

One model that has arisen for implementing college and career pathways and Work-Based Learning in many states is the “Career Academy” model. A career academy might be a small learning community bringing together a cohort of students on a campus, or it might encompass an entire school. Career academies are usually formed around a specific industry sector (health care, engineering) or theme (green technology) that helps students see the connections between academic subjects and their application in the real world. Students in career academies typically take both career-themed and academic classes together. These courses are linked to academic and industry standards and encourage high achievement.

The National Academy Foundation (NAF), along with business and educational leaders and organizations, developed five dimensions of college and career readiness:

  1. Core academics (subject content knowledge)
  2. Career knowledge (content specific to the profession; pathway requirements and qualifications)
  3. Foundational skills for post-secondary and career success (critical and systemic thinking and problem solving, organization, information literacy; communication, et. al.)
  4. Interpersonal skills (collaboration and teamwork, ethical behavior)
  5. Self-management

NAF, a network that assists and certifies career academies, counts more than 667 academies in 38 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia, serving more than 80,000 students, among its members.


Work-Based Learning (WBL) is a set of curricula, activities, and experiences, tied to student success outcomes, with which students can connect what they are learning in the classroom to the world of work and to develop their interest in and knowledge about different career pathways. It involves interaction with employer partners and prepares students for success in post-secondary education and careers.

The National Academy Foundation describes a continuum of WBL: career awareness (elementary, middle school, and high school), career exploration (beginning in middle school), and career preparation (beginning in high school), culminating with an internship. Student WBL activities and opportunities to understand how school relates to the world of work match up extremely well with PBL, CCSS, and career pathways.

WBL and PBL complement each other very well, and if implemented carefully, one can feed into the other, with learning project related to a career field helping to prepare students for conversations with professionals, internships, and other WBL experiences (and vice versa). Like learning projects, WBL activities offer students opportunities to explore and “try out” different careers and discover their true interests and strengths.



The Common Core State Standards include only English Language Arts and Mathematics (though they do include

Standards for Literacy in Science, which cover the challenges of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language in the field). Therefore, the National Research Council (NRC), the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a group called Achieve banded together in an effort to develop the “Next Generation Science Standards” (NGSS), which are similarly designed to be adopted by states as education standards for students across the U.S. Also similar to Common Core, these science standards emphasize critical thinking and communications skills.

The final draft of the Next Generation Science Standards was released in April 2013. While 26 states were involved in the development of the NGSS, only 11 (plus the District of Columbia) have so far adopted them.

Click here for more information


A coalition of national organizations has developed the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards to provide guidance for states to upgrade their state social studies standards and for practitioners — local school districts, schools, teachers and curriculum writers — to strengthen their social studies programs. The objectives of the C3 Framework are to: a) enhance the rigor of the social studies disciplines; b) build critical thinking, problem solving, and participatory skills to become engaged citizens; and c) align academic programs to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies.

Click here for more information.


Many schools and other educational organizations now use
current technology to supplement regular instruction, to offer
expanded content and practice, to reach students at any
time and place, and to customize learning and offer instant
feedback. The group Digital Learning Now defines it as
“learning facilitated by technology that gives students some
element of control over time, place, path and/or pace.”


The Alliance for Excellent Education, in cooperation with
the U.S. Department of Education, created the Future
Ready Schools initiative to help school districts develop
comprehensive plans to achieve successful student learning
outcomes by (1) transforming instructional pedagogy
and practice, emphasizing collaborative leadership and
positive school culture, while (2) simultaneously leveraging
technology to personalize learning, for all students, in the
classroom. More than 1,900 school districts across the U.S.
have signed the “Future Ready District Pledge.”



While there is no need for education stakeholders to have a deep understanding of all the strategies and standards in education reform, getting at least a basic working knowledge of relevant concepts will help to communicate with educators and navigate the constant shifts that affect most schools and districts in the U.S. The specific strategies defined above are not only intended to increase college and career readiness, but also align extremely well with PBL, giving its advocates an opening.

Project Management Toolkit for Teachers. Project Management Institute Educational Foundation, 2013.

Communications Toolkit for Engaging internal Audiences. Linked Learning Alliance, 2013.

National Academy Foundation Guide to Work-Based Learning: A Continuum of Activities and Experience, 2011.

Redefining College Readiness. David T. Conley, Educational Policy Improvement Center, 2007.

The Common Core FAQ (web page). www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/05/27/307755798/the-common-core-faq

“Does Deeper Learning Improve Student Outcomes?” American Institutes for Research, 2014. www.hewlett.org/sites/default/files/AIR%20Deeper%20Learning%20Summary.pdficonPDF16x16

Next Generation Science Standards (www.nextgenscience.org)

“Project Management for Learning: A Foundational Guide to Applying Project Management Principles and Methods to Education”. Bernie Trilling, Project Management Institute Educational Foundation, 2014.

“Gold Standard PBL: A Progress Report & Request for Critique”. John Mergendollar, Buck Institute for Education, November 3, 2014. bie.org/blog/gold_standard_pbl_a_progress_report_request_for_critique

“The Importance of Project Based Teaching.” John Mergendollar, Buck Institute for Education, October 1, 2014. bie.org/blog/the_importance_of_project_based_teaching

Click edit button to change this text.