In my endless search for ways to reconcile our differences over how to fix our schools, I have found the best guide yet to finding common ground.
This new book, “Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It” is by Ronald A. Wolk, the founder and former editor of Education Week. He is a friend. I have served with him on the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the non-profit which publishes Edweek. But I don’t think this threatens my impartiality too much because we have often disagreed.
I started the book thinking I would not like his solutions. I feel differently now. Wolk is a man of courage. Turning Edweek into a success was difficult. He knows how kids learn. He brings the traditionalist, rigor-loving, no-excuses crowd, my side in the debate, much closer to the progressive, relevance-loving, leery-of-testing people like Wolk and the many folks who make fun of me on this blog.
Wolk divides the book into a series of assumptions, first what he considers the bad ones, then some good ones. Here is each one. He plucks out the threads of the national debate and sews them back together in a more agreeable form.
Here are what he calls the flawed assumptions, somewhat condensed and then commented on by me:
1. Students and teachers need to work harder:
Wolk, with some justification, sees this assumption as creating an unhealthy slave-driver attitude among some administrators. He has a point. I don’t think teachers need to work harder to be more effective, but I think on average students definitely do.
2. We need rigorous content standards and a core curriculum for all schools:
I agree that the emphasis on standards is often misplaced. It produces meetings and reports that do little to help teachers.
3. Standardized test scores are useful measures of academic progress:
He makes the usual arguments about test flaws and misuse, but I still think they work better than the available alternatives.
4. Everyone should take Algebra I by eighth grade and lots of math in high school or our global competitors will bury us:
I think getting as many kids as possible through first year algebra before high school is a good idea. Math is important. But I share Wolk’s distrust of the global competition argument.
5. We need a highly qualified teacher in every classroom:
He is right to question this assumption. The words “highly qualified” have been grossly distorted by state laws. It is better to think of teachers as teams.
6. Effective principals in every school will make a big difference:
This is a valid assumption. Wolk doesn’t actually challenge it. He just says we need to train and support principals better.
7. We can fix the drop-out problem with dropout prevention programs and raising the legal school leaving age to 18:
Wolk is right. This is nonsense. I have quoted him on this before. Schools need to change the way they motivate students, on which Wolk is an expert. See number 10.
8. Making the school day and school year longer will increase student learning:
This is also a valid and extremely important assumption. Wolk makes the good point that you have to use the extra time effectively, but he should be careful not to leave the impression that more time for learning is unnecessary.
9. With enough money, we can give every student an excellent education:
He is both right and brave to say this is a false assumption. He is puncturing the balloon of many of his progressive admirers who argue we can’t do better if we don’t spend more.
Here are the assumptions Wolk embraces:
10. We need not only better standards rigorously enforced, but a second strategy of more innovative, smaller schools:
Quite right. Wolk knows this because after he retired from Edweek he became chair of Big Picture Learning, one of the most successful creators of small, innovative schools. Big Picture schools are based on internships for students unable to learn in class.
11. We must tailor teaching to each child’s interests and needs:
Yup. I think both sides agree on this.
12. We should encourage more educational opportunities both inside and outside school to help motivate student interest:
I don’t know of anyone who disagrees, just so as Wolk notes the new pathways don’t include dead-end tracks reserved for poor kids.
13. Students will learn more in real-world contexts:
There is an argument about this. Many people of Wolk’s and my generation think this means abandoning lessons on Aristotle, Galileo, Mill, Beethoven and other dead white guys. That’s wrong. You can teach Adam Smith with lots of examples from the rise and fall of the pop recording industry.
14. Assessing students with multiple measures, particularly their school work, is better than depending just on test scores:
True. My only complaint is that multiple measures can get expensive. I don’t want them to cut into teacher salaries.
15. High-quality preschools and elementary schools are very important:
1 6. Teachers will be more effective if we educate them differently and modify their traditional role as instructors:
Yes. Training should be more practical. They would work more as teams.
17. Students and parents should be able to choose their schools through open enrollment in states and districts and unlimited charter schools:
Those are Wolk’s exact words: “unlimited charter schools.” Of course he still has to persuade many people on his side who have the same visceral feeling about charters as they have about snakes and Wall Street bankers. He even challenges Diane Ravitch’s late-inning conversion to the anti-charter cause.
18. Schools need to embrace the new technology:
Of course, as long as we avoid sales executives trying to unload new toys that don’t work. Wolk knows a con man when he sees one.
“Wasting Minds” ends by reminding us how hard it will be to unite us when we are so prone to old bad habits. Wolk dares to say “our public education system is controlled by adults largely for the benefit of adults,” echoing former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, not popular with most progressives.
The book is full of paragraphs you will want to quote to your friends, and enemies, such as:
“Except for organized religion, no social institution has changed less in the past century than public education. Agriculture, transportation, medicine, communications, the military---all bear little resemblance to what they were a hundred years ago. Education looks the same today as it did then, except for the diversity of the students.”
If education were an organized religion, I would nominate Wolk for pope. He could be our John XXIII, uniting all factions in a new ecumenical movement.
It won’t happen that way, but Wolk’s book is the best argument yet for why it should.