Professional Book Club:
The Global Achievement Gap: Why Our Kids Don’t Have the Skills They Need for College, Careers, and Citizenship–and What We Can Do About It
Description: Despite the best efforts of educators, our nation’s schools are dangerously obsolete. Instead of teaching students to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers, we are asking them to memorize facts for multiple choice tests. This problem isn’t limited to low-income school districts: even our top schools aren’t teaching or testing the skills that matter most in the global knowledge economy. Our teens leave school equipped to work only in the kinds of jobs that are fast disappearing from the American economy. Meanwhile, young adults in India and China are competing with our students for the most sought-after careers around the world.Education expert Tony Wagner has conducted scores of interviews with business leaders and observed hundreds of classes in some of the nation’s most highly regarded public schools. He discovered a profound disconnect between what potential employers are looking for in young people today (critical thinking skills, creativity, and effective communication) and what our schools are providing (passive learning environments and uninspired lesson plans that focus on test preparation and reward memorization).He explains how every American can work to overhaul our education system, and he shows us examples of dramatically different schools that teach all students new skills. In addition, through interviews with college graduates and people who work with them, Wagner discovers how teachers, parents, and employers can motivate the “net” generation to excellence.An education manifesto for the twenty-first century, The Global Achievement Gap is provocative and inspiring. It is essential reading for parents, educators, business leaders, policy-makers, and anyone interested in seeing our young people succeed as employees and citizens.For additional information about the author and the book, please go to www.schoolchange.orgHardcover, 320 pagesPublished August 12th 2008 by Basic BooksISBN0465002293 (ISBN13: 9780465002290)
One of major points of the book, and one that is not supported by my personal experience, is Wagner’s view that high schools are too focused on memorization. I’ve only worked at three high schools, and they may be exceptions, but both the classes I’ve taught and the student work I’ve seen for other classes has been minimally focused on memorization. In my chemistry class, I have students memorize 40 common element symbols and around 35 vocabulary words over the course of the school year (about one a week), and even those are used in context and clearly aligned to other objectives. Our school does not offer AP classes (instead encouraging students to enroll in actual college classes), so that could partially explain the difference in emphasis.
Another point Wagner makes too much of is that academic content is constantly changing, and changing rapidly. He’s very hung up on whether there are eight or nine planets, but at least for science, Pluto’s “demotion” is the exception that proves the rule. While the Periodic Table students see in chemistry grows slowly (at around the pace new particle colliers are constructed), the elements I have students memorize are not in constant flux. It would make more sense to think of physical science as an expanding pool of knowledge. While changes are occurring on the shoreline, much of the knowledge students are learning in high school is in the very center. It’s important for students to see the changes on the edges (Higg’s boson-type stuff) to know that interesting science is still being done, but Wagner needs to recognize that there are core sets of principles students can learn that are not in danger of becoming instantly obsolete.
An interesting aside, he mentions is the idea of “bubble students” – how teachers are asked to identify students that can be “moved” to the next proficiency band and focus efforts on them. My principal demands a list of 10 students from each teacher at the start of the year. I compliantly submit it and never look at it again. This little glimpse of school life rang totally sad and true for me.
I generally agreed with the issues Wagner cites in the teaching profession – specifically the lack of collaboration, the pointless time-theft of faculty meetings as they are currently structured, and the lack of meaningful feedback from administrators. While neither of the two teacher preparation programs I participated in (long story) were quite as useless as Wagner’s, they were each at least 1/2 useless. I emphatically agree with his point that video critiques of teaching are an especially meaningful way to get feedback on the art of teaching – although they can be painful to watch too. I did three in my first teacher prep program but none in my second.
Interestingly, the work the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing with teacher evaluations, that Wagner cites glowingly, has had a profound negative effect on my satisfaction in the teaching profession. “Checkbox – All Satisfaction” ratings have been replaced with cruel, punitive, and even more useless “Approaching Effective” ratings. As I’ve repeatedly told my “peer reviewer”, switching reviews from “pointless” to “cruel and pointless” makes my likely decision to leave the profession much easier. I’ve worked at Capital One and GE, two organizations that claim to aggressively manage performance, and I have never been upset and demoralized by a review process like in Denver Public Schools.
I do like that Wagner does not take the easy way out and blame teachers unions exclusively. Unions are a problem, but my general experience has been that administrator incompetence unfortunately necessitates an incompetent counterbalance. (I could go into a tirade about the five terrible principals I’ve endured in my three years of teaching, but suffice it to say it’s worse than you can probably imagine in every way. A few assistant principals have been exceptions, but not many of those either…) Surprising, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has been notably silent on principal evaluation.
Wagner’s book is thought-provoking and engaging even though I didn’t agree with all his points. The skills he lists are important and the questions he asks after learning walks are great questions for reflective teachers to ask themselves. Maybe one day we’ll even have time to ask them of each other during faculty meetings, assuming our lists of “bubble students” have been properly submitted to our principals of course.
I found this book to be extremely repetitive and highly disappointing. While I do not have all the answers and certainly agree with Wagner’s stance on the lack of “rigor” in over-hyped Advanced Placement factories in the suburbs, Wagner continuously went back to the question: W.D.CEOs.W. That is: “What do CEOs want?” as if CEOs of major corporations are the epitome of Wagner’s seven survival skills for teens today. It is comical to read — though not surprising seeing Wagner is a member of the foundation-movement that funds much of educational experimentation today — how CEOs are lecturing us all about how stupid public-school educated kids are. Were these not the same jokers who gambled tens of trillions of dollars away in the course of a few years? Though they were persuasive enough to milk the taxpayers on both ends of the financial collapse. Must have done well on the new CLA exams college are offering as exit exams.Ironcially, CEOs want smart employees but need dumb consumers to buy their junk products and financial services.Wagner is a pure capitalist in the same way Glenn Beck is a pure capitalist. He packages ideas together (rigor, critical thinking, agility), sells them to an audience (in this case both CEOs and education leaders) and profits from it. Although unlike Beck, who is intentionally destructive in his language and probably doesn’t believe half of what he says, Wagner at least cares about what he is talking about, but I find it to be disingenuous. On one hand, he talks about needing teachers to be smart and analytical about their craft. Then on the other hand he lamented that one of this subjects in his book, who could have been a scientist, instead become a lowly teacher. Don’t we need smart teachers to teach kids these skills?
The culture of learning is so much about passive consumption…That’s where we all learn to be good little consumers – in school.” Boy, if that’s not a reason to encourage active learning and discourage rote memorization, I don’t know what is!and: “We need to encourage intrinsic motivation…find and pursue intellectual or artisitic passion.” I think we’ve all had the experience where we have been intrinsically motivated to learn something and been amazed at how easy and fun learning is when that is the caseI wasn’t illuminated by anything particularly new. Yes, for the most part our education system has not kept up with trends in the workforce. Yes, the current trend focusing on standardized testing is harming our children’s educational experiences. And, certainly, yes, we need to be looking to the wider world with an emphasis on developing critical thinking skills and learning to function in a global setting. Good teachers and good school systems are already attempting to tackle these issues. I would recommend this book to parents and politicians! For those who feel the need to be involved in schools, but are not themselves professional educators, this book should surely be a recommended read
Two major premises of Wagner’s book I don’t really agree with:1. Corporate & business types know what is best for K-12 education.
2. The current internet-enabled generation is fundamentally different from all previous generations.Also, Wagner has a clear lack of understanding of math & science and is on very shaky ground whenever discussing these subjects. He makes claims such as the periodic table is “constantly changing” (it is not) and says something like, “No one has explained to me the broad usefulness of math above algebra and statistics,” while the relevancy of Shakespeare is explicitly stated but not explained, even though I would say Shakespeare is to reading what calculus is to math.Wagner practically marginalizes the importance of math when he incorrectly copies math questions from standardized tests, without proper formatting, thereby making them impossible to solve. He goes on to spend a page and a half on the precise definition of “mystic,” but blows off the math questions with comments like, “I bet you struggled with the math questions.”
The book is filled with anecdotes and vague prescriptions and, while offering up many intriguing new paradigms in educations, fails to address the fundamental issue of the world changing so fast that education will always seem outdated. Wagner’s prescription for Rigor, Relevance and Relationships (replacing the old school Reading, wRiting & aRithmetic) falls short in my eyes: Rigor remains hard to define; Relevance in K-12 education is moot: no ones is teaching irrelevant things, we are all working on basic skills; Relationships is great, but an academic classroom is probably not the most efficient place for that. Meanwhile, kids still need to read more, write more, and learn their multiplication tables (which he cites many times as unquestionably something worth memorizing but does not appear to be aware that modern students are oftentimes not required to memorize them and actually can not multiply without calculators).
Having said all that, I do like how he is fair about disagreeing with the business world that teacher unions and lazy teachers are the root of the problem. I also like his broad panning of all the NCLB testing mandates and his mocking of the buzz words “standards based” & “data driven”. I do also agree that more respect for teaching as a highly-skilled profession would lead to the acknowledgment that teaching preparation & collaboration are as crucial to the job as classroom time