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Tony Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap (Basic Books, 2008)


Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard Graduate School of Education, describes in his introduction how American educational achievement compares poorly with much of the rets of the developed world, but it's a theme he doesn't dwell on. Instead, he looks at problems and solutions - and the issues he discusses are things that many national education systems can learn from. Interestingly, his views on the problems of the US education system seems to be moulded not by the problems of urban schools as with so many writers (and politicians), but by observing teaching in America's good, suburban schools, including those in the private sector, where teaching is still primarily about memorising factual content for tests rather than developing skills, leading to students graduating from even the best public and private schools without the skills necessary for college, work or life.

Indeed this seems to be where the real gap lies:

...[the] gap between what many kids are being taught by competent teachers every day in good schools versus what the world will require of them...  (p.13-14)

This book covers a number of juicy issues: testing, developing a culture of teacher collaboration, school leadership, improving training for teachers and administrators, and student motivation. But these are simply tools, for at the heart of Wagner's book is the issue of what students should learn at school, the Seven Survival Skills:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving;
  • Collaboration;
  • Agility and Adaptability;
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism;
  • Oral and Written Communication;
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information;
  • Curiosity and Imagination.

These represent a "core set of survival skills for today's workplace, as well as for lifelong learning and active citizenship skills that are ntiher taught nor tested even in our best school systems." (p.14) Wagner argues that reforms that focus on these skills, as well as his other suggestions, are what will raise standards, not NCLB. It's a powerful argument if you agree with his assertion that while a growing number of teachers and parents are uneasy with excessive testing:

"...most don't know what to advocate for...few questions what students are being taught or how. And parents and policymakers alike believe that high test scores are the best, most reliable measure of a good school system." (p.12)

This then is the alternative to the testing culture. In a sense it is also an educationalists's version of the kind of ideas espoused by the business writers, Thomas Friedman and Daniel Pink and this convergence of an understanding of the problems facing education with the needs of business (and society) is compelling, for, unlike Friedman and Pink, Wagner discusses the need for these skills alongside the effects of the testing and accountability movement and the conservatism of the school system by comparing the "new world of work" with the "old world of school". He stresses the need for students to master skills rather than academic content, but shows how political pressures rather than educational needs led to an avalanche of content standards in the early 1990s along with the testing of ths content.

In the chapter, Reinventing the Education Profession, Wagner argues that the whole culture of the education profession needs to be changed with improved training for teachers and administrators, collaboration, an end to the compliance culture.

He makes a compelling argument for teacher and administrator (ie principals) collaboration:

"isolation is the enemy of improvement in education...working more collaboratively to improve teaching and learning is really the only way educators are likely to get significantly better results." (page 164)

One method he argues for is viewing and discussing videos of teaching but acknowledges the lack of time available for teachers to collaborate. Wagner criticises the poor quality of both teacher and administrator training, citing one study that

could not find a single example of an effective leadership preparation program in the United States. (page 146)

and instead suggests the development of portfolios as a method of both training and professional development along with greater collaboration and intellectual challenge.

He describes in detail his own experiences as a teacher, when he felt isolated and unsupported, and as a principal:

"I had absolutely no idea how to be a leader - a change leader - and, in fact, I was still mostly consumed by the tasks of being a day-to-day manager." (page 141)

He discusses professional development and how the prevailing culture seems to be that teachers will attend but ultimately will not implement anything from it, partly because administrators rarely encourage a follow-up.

The compliance culture:

I'll agree to fill out your forms, attend your meetings, and appear to go along with whatever is the "Reform Du Jour" - just so long as you leave me alone to do as I please in my classroom or school. (page 155)

It's an enlightening book. It's also both worrying and reassuring at the same time; reassuring because I find myself agreeing with everything he writes and because everything he suggests is both doable and is being done; worrying because most schools are teaching - and, frankly, being forced to teach - completely and utterly the wrong stuff.




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