The Global Achievement Gap

When checking out Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World, which argues that American education is falling dangerously behind other nations, I stumbled across Tony Wagner’s six-year-old The Global Achievement Gap. Wagner begins with a frightening anecdote — the type that could drive today’s frenzied assault on teachers.

A world-renowned molecular scientist sent two sons to a Cambridge, Massachusetts, school. One had a great experience, being inspired by an awesome teacher who used project-based learning and taught hands-on science. The other son had a “totally different” experience. His teacher offered none of the “fun stuff.” That teacher’s test prep approach to instruction drove the love of learning out of class.

Today, such an anecdote could prompt more calls to fire bad teachers. But, both of the classes in Wagner’s story had the same teacher! The difference was the increased pressure to conform to test-driven accountability had driven excellent teaching from the classroom.

I don’t have the expertise to answer the question of whether we have an overall crisis in public education, as opposed to the question of whether it is mostly high-challenge schools that are failing. Ripley and Wagner make a good case, however, that our schools do not teach critical thinking in an engaging manner.

I’m more impressed with Wagner’s methodology. He summarized international PISA data, for instance, in order to estimate where students of different nations stand in terms of access to instruction that emphasizes critical and creative thinking. More importantly, Wagner had conducted “walk throughs” of classrooms across the nation. He and his guests, including staff for the Gates Foundation, invariably were disappointed by the lack of engaging instruction.

Today, the discussion about paths to better teaching usually lead to more rigorous standards-based reforms. Amanda Ripley is just one of today’s true believers in rigor and competition as the driver of educational excellence. Wagner makes a good case that such a focus is a dead end. The normative definition of rigor was limited to the mastery of more complex subject matter, and that is an unworthy goal. Wagner defines “rigor” in the context of “In today’s world, it’s no longer how much you know that matters; it’s what you can do with what you know.” (Emphasis by Wagner.)

Advocates for Common Core and its more rigorous testing seek to speed up the educational assembly line so that more knowledge can be poured faster into the brains of students. Wagner recalls, however, that even in the 1990s the “half life” of knowledge in science and math was 2 to 3 years, and that now it must be less. Real world, it is impossible to speed up the teaching of so much more knowledge.

On the contrary, the way to learn and prosper in the 21st century is to teach kids to ask better questions. We need schools where intellectual give and take is nurtured, not classrooms where teachers are intimidated into teaching to the test.

Wagner closes with examples of three types of schools that nurture real rigor, the types of creativity that we need. But, all of those successes were rooted in the 1990s, before NCLB, the Obama administration, and the “Billionaires Boys Club” imposed the test, sort, and punish policies known as corporate reform.

We have always had plenty of soul-killing, drill and kill instruction. In the past, however, it was seen as education malpractice. Now, it is imposed in the name of “reform.” Not having participated in nearly as many walk throughs as Wagner, I have no idea if we, objectively, have more mediocre teaching in today’s classrooms.

If Wagner has a definitive opinion about that question, he is too discrete to express it. We clearly have wasted an opportunity to improve teaching, however, as tens of billions of new dollars and unfathomable amounts of energy have been invested in competition-driven reforms.

It was nice having an opportunity to remember Wagner’s wisdom. He is also discrete on another issue. What do Gates Foundation staff persons think during these depressing walk throughs? Would they now own up to the Gates contribution to undermining creative and engaging instruction? I wonder what could happen if they also reread The Global Achievement Gap with six years of hindsight.