Ken Kay, the president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and one of the most thoughtful proponents of the idea, argues that the challenge today is making schools more deliberate about teaching these skills. While he values content in teaching skills, Kay sees 21st-century skills as the basic "design specifications" for a better school system.
He is certainly right that schools have been haphazard about imparting these skills to students. To the extent most students pick them up it is random, the result of lucky encounters with great teachers, schools, or other influences rather than an intentional curriculum. That must change. But it must change in tandem with a focus on augmenting—not supplanting—content and with a keen eye toward all the constraints that exist in the education system today.
The 21st-century skills movement will be invaluable if it leads to strategies to make our system of schooling more equitable and effective by giving students, especially economically disadvantaged students, both content and various advanced skills. History, though, is not on the movement's side. In American education, the absence of any canon coupled with a tendency to run after every shiny new idea often leads to faddishness that slights the most disadvantaged students.
If they want to genuinely transform teaching and learning, proponents of 21st-century skills must be as deliberate about how their idea is approached and implemented as they want schools to be about teaching these skills.