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Recommended reading: Tony Wagner's "Global Achievement Gap"

WKU's College of Education and Behavioral Sciences kicked off our Fall 2011 academic term back in August with a Skyped-in!!d7,u,!BmM~$(KGrHqMOKisEwPBtPuqgBME)bLvqNQ~~_8[1]  presentation and Q&A with Tony Wagner, former director of Harvard's Change Leadership Group.  I've just finished Wagner's book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need - and What We Can Do About It.  The book includes some well-worn admonitions about the United States' slipping status in global educational rankings, but also features some compelling suggestions for what American schools can do about it that transcend our traditional emphasis on testing and accountability.

Wagner echoes the now-familiar refrain that our schools are failing to educate today's students with the 21st-century skills they need for competing in a rapidly-changing, technology-driven global economy.  Based on interviews with American CEO's of cutting-edge, international businesses, Wagner concludes schools should be equipping students with what he calls  "Seven Survival Skills:"

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepeneurialism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

Fair enough, and familiar enough.  But what distinguishes the rest of Wagner's book is his fairing scathing indictment that today's test-driven educational culture works against all these higher-ordered skills, emphasizing instead rote memorization of facts or processes and a thoroughly disengaging, demotivating classroom culture for students, especially at the high school level.  Interestingly, Wagner does not suggest we can or should simply throw out testing and accountability, though.  Instead, he argues that schools should intentionally shift their focus to more intentional definitions and expectations of rigor; rich, cross-disciplinary student tasks that emphasize the Seven Survival Skills; and comprehensive, engaging classroom and school-level performance assessments that measure student progress toward real critical thinking.  In doing so, Wagner believes that students will still do well on accountability tests, but will be far better equipped for today's world.

 Wagner profiles three cutting-edge high schools that exemplify his model.  Two are charter schools and all three operate with vastly different structures, instructional techniques, and professional work cultures than do traditional high schools.  He suggests these schools, and others, may serve as models not of what others should necessarily imitate, but of what's possible when schools dramatically raise their expectations for student performance.

On first reading of The Global Achievement Gap, I think Wagner makes a compelling case.  Having visited classrooms  thousands of times as an administrator, I immediately recognize the low-rigor instruction he describes as far too typical for many high schools.  What Wagner is proposing is a much-needed antidote to this problem and does not contradict our recent focus on curricula driven by learning targets or instruction informed by frequent formative assessment.  It also requires highly-function professional learning communities and a teaching culture based on continuously-improving practice and collaborative dialogue.

My only point of concern is that Wagner neglects one key element in traditional high schools' failure to emphasize more rigorous learning expectations: the large number of students who get to high school with key skills deficits in reading, math, communication, and other areas.  Wagner acknowledges that critical thinking depends upon core knowledge and basic skills competencies, but doesn't discuss how this inhibits high schools from enacting his vision. 

My own hope is that as interventions improve at the elementary and middle school level, high schools will face fewer of these problems, and that ultimately high schools will make their own intervention efforts supports to rigorous, high expectations for regular classroom learning, rather than the curriculum itself.  Core knowledge and competencies should be the gateway to high school learning rather than the goal.

I highly recommend The Global Achievement Gap for practicing and aspiring school leaders, who might use it as a starting point for thoughtful, collaborative dialogue with teachers about the rigor of learning in their own schools and as a possible vision of where they might go in the future.


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