The New Achievement Gap

A gap in 21st century workforce skills is creating a new achievement gap among youth.

Middle school and high school students today have a world of information at their fingertips.  History, science or language questions can all be Googled and answered within seconds on smart phonesIt’s one reason why many schools are increasing their focus on developing 21st Century Skills in young people – skills like critical thinking, communication, creativity, collaboration and leadership – to ensure students succeed not only in school, but in college, career and life in an information age.

However, today in Massachusetts, almost 10% of youth ages 16-24 years old, representing 85,000 young people, are not in school and are not working. Boston alone has close to 12,000 youth who are disconnected from school or employment.   

This is creating a new achievement gap.  One that has a real impact on our economic future, which is already facing a workforce/skills gap.  According to a survey of Massachusetts CEOs commissioned by the Massachusetts Alliance for Business Education, 69% of employers report difficulty recruiting workers with the right skills for their company.

Fueled by the information age and the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives schools more flexibility to incorporate 21stcentury skill-building into their curriculum, public school districts from Boston to San Francisco are taking a closer look at evaluating these skills, in addition to students’ academic progress, when measuring success.


Out-of-school time programs have also begun to increase their focus on developing these skills, keeping youth in school and preparing them for the workforce, a shift from simply providing safe spaces or homework help.  The result, experts say, will be a generation of young people that are better prepared to succeed as our future leaders.

United Way is funding several strategies and initiatives that aim to keep students on track to graduate college and career-ready as well as initiatives that foster leadership and civic engagement.  Our funds support agency partnerships and initiatives that:

  • Provide academic programs that keep 23,000 students on track to graduate each year;
  • Recruit 3,000 mentors annually who inspire youth to stay in school; and
  • Foster leadership skills and civic engagement in the community, helping over 11,000 young people to avoid risky behaviors that can lead to negative consequences.

Jonathan Gerlach speaks at the United Way STEM Breakfast.

BoSTEM, United Way’s new partnership with Boston Public Schools, is looking to foster 21st Century Skills and expose all Boston middle school students to hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning experiences both in and outside of the classroom by 2020.

These experiences are hands-on learning opportunities involving corporate volunteers, teachers and nonprofit staff that give students the chance to apply math and science skills in exciting, real-world contexts through a combination of activities in both school and out-of-school settings.

“We need to stop asking young people what they want to be and start asking them what problems they want to solve,” says Jonathan Gerlach of Discovery Education (pictured right), who spoke recently at United Way’s STEM Leadership Breakfast.

Today, these hands-on STEM learning opportunities are only available to 6% of Boston students through out-of-school time programming.  BoSTEM hopes to reach 10,000 BPS middle school students on an annual basis by 2020, providing them all STEM experiences that pique their interest in the STEM fields.

Boston Youth Venture

Initiatives like United Way’s Youth Venture connect the creativity and talent of young people with the skills and experience of local business professionals.  Teams of youth develop community-oriented business plans, pitch them to a panel of judges, and secure $1,000 in seed funding to get their social entrepreneurial plans off the ground.

 “A lot of people like to say that young people are our future leaders, but I don’t think that’s true. I think they are our leaders today.  And Youth Venture is giving them a unique opportunity to lead NOW,” said Shari Davis, City of Boston Director of Youth Engagement.

“We envision a region where all of our young people graduate college and are career ready,” says Michael K. Durkin, United Way president.  “We’re committed to bringing together educators, industry and corporate partners, volunteers and community-based organizations to instill the 21st century skills that all youth need to succeed in the workforce of tomorrow.”