The Global Achievement Gap – Review

Tony Wagner. The Global Achievement Gap. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Print.

I read this book shortly after I read Gatto’s An Underground History of American Education. The Global Achievement Gap makes some of the same critiques of the current American education system but also comes up with some proposals that have seemed to work to improve things in different schools. Wagner’s concern has been echoing for at least 59 years since the old Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite: America is falling behind in technology, and the schools need to do something about it.

The author of Underground History spent his entire career as a classroom teacher. Wagner spent about a decade as one, but since then he has worked as a researcher and university professor. Wagner first identifies what he calls seven survival skills and then tries to present what seems to work and what does not in developing these skills.

Here are the skills: (1) Critical thinking and problem solving, (2) Collaboration and leading by influence, (3) Adaptability, (4) Initiative, (5) Effective oral and written communication, (6) Obtaining and analyzing information, and (7) Curiosity and imagination.

As a teacher, my reaction to each of these things varies. I understand the need for all these things for anyone just to enjoy everyday life. I do wonder, though, if schools are the always the places to develop these things. I know from experience that some of these things that could be developed in schools are often not developed, or if they are attempted, they are done in a superficial manner.

I note that Wagner is very critical of “teaching to the test” techniques. From my experience, he is absolutely correct. However, I would suggest that the problem is not usually the tests themselves. The College Board, for example, has lots of statistics to prove the efficacy of its tests. The problem is the practice of teaching to the tests.

When I was in high school, for example, the contents of the SAT were still a secret. In 1980 New York passed a law requiring the SAT and similar entrance and employment tests publish their questions. After unsuccessfully challenging the law in courts, the College Board began releasing its tests in 1984. That changed education more than the test itself. Now people could actually teach to the SAT.

When I was in high school (pre-1984), we knew that the SAT tested reading, reasoning, and math skills. If you were a good reader, a decent critical thinker, and did well in math through your sophomore year, you would do OK on the test. That same idea worked on other standardized tests as well: what we now call the SAT-II subject tests, the Advanced Placement exams, the Iowa Tests, the Stanford Achievement Tests, or whatever.

Now since we have a better idea of what the tests are like, there is more of a focus on acing the test. While Wagner perhaps has some reasonable criticisms of the contents of some of the tests, I believe a bigger problem is with the approach to the tests. Students often treat the standardized test as something to learn to take and, when it is over, to forget about. Any vocabulary or skill that the student might have learned is now irrelevant. If the student learns the skill, it will help him or her on the test, surely, but if he or she understands that the skill will help for other things in the future, it becomes more important.

I believe that any decent school or teacher is teaching numbers 1, 5, 6, and 7 from the above list. Students ought to learn logic and vocabulary in more than just geometry. I have found that students really like the logic lessons I teach. At least they like the concepts. Some do not like the exercises we do because they are not always easy, but, hopefully, they begin to understand the skills. It becomes more exciting as a teacher when I see them pick up on logic, logical fallacies, and propaganda techniques in things they are reading or studying.

As an English teacher, it is my duty to get kids to develop effective communication skills. Teachers of other subject areas need to do this as well. This is a lot of work, not just for the student but for the teacher. It means assigning a lot of writing and grading a lot of assignments. “Completion grades” are a joke, and students know it.

Obtaining and analyzing information is an outgrowth of effective communication. English teachers have a part in this, but so does every teacher in his or her area of expertise. A good writer can use impeccable organization, style, and logic and still produce garbage because the information is not any good. My biggest challenge nowadays, besides plagiarism, is to convince students that books and journals are generally more reliable than random stuff on the Internet. Why? It gets back to logic. How do you test the testimony?

Curiosity and imagination are harder for schools to specifically develop. We have all heard students say, “No one is going to point a gun at me and ask me…” I have been at the same school for over 30 years. Recently I was asked which classes were my favorites. I said that I liked the classes that were more creative, more risk takers. I wish I knew why some of those classes were different. I do not think I taught them differently, but they ran with what they were given. Perhaps they were less concerned about pleasing the teacher and motivated to think independently.

It is the same with curiosity and imagination. Those are things that cannot be taught. However, they can be encouraged and perhaps inspired with examples. Even grammar can be made interesting if you treat it more as a research project and use examples from real life to show what you mean.

So what about collaboration, adaptability, and initiative?

Collaboration has two sides. Students do work together on projects in classes. Some classes have group assignments. Obviously, extra-curriculars like sports and drama involve some form of teamwork. However, teachers also know that this can devolve into cheating, plagiarism, and letting one person do it all.

Adaptability also has two sides. Some schools, for example, require great adaptability for their teachers. They are always trying something new, many times untried things that may not work. I will be honest, adaptability gets harder as one gets older. Twenty years ago, I was ahead of all my students in technology. Now, especially when it comes to cell phones and tablet devices, they are ahead of me. I have no desire to learn “emoji” language. I am skeptical of new programs because over the years I have had experience with what works and what does not work. In many cases, the new program is simply a recycled old program. Sometimes I say, I have been doing the same kind of thing for years. Other times I say, a pig with lipstick is till a pig.

For students, I guess if we want them to be adaptable, we have to place them under some pressure. If things are too easy, they will lack adaptability when they are older and things become difficult. Much of this skill though depends on circumstances and situations outside the school.

Initiative is always tough in a school situation. Schools are bureaucracies and require a certain amount of conformity. That stifles initiative. Sad but true.

Wagner does try to emphasize that not everything works for everyone. He mentions some successful schools—mostly private schools. In many cases they are not answerable to state and federal bureaucracies the way government schools are. Even Gatto in Underground History credits his one year at a Catholic school with getting him to think independently.

One truly alternative school he names I am familiar with, the Sudbury Valley School. I grew up in Sudbury and the brother of a friend ended up going to Sudbury Valley. It was one of the best things that happened to him. He was given the freedom he needed to develop his thinking. However, others simply milked its lack of structure and had little to show for their time there.

All seven of these things do depend a little on the school and its culture, but they really depend on the individual teachers. Wagner and Gatto both identify some of the same problems. One they both point out has been major one for me. There is little opportunity for teacher collaboration. We are all so busy in our full schedules with our own classes that even informal discussions are hard to come by. New teachers often have a hard time because all the other teachers are so busy, the new teacher does not know who to ask or what to do.

A few years ago, we had a new English teacher at our school who had a lot of potential. He was a reader, a writer, and had a decent high school and college education. Fortunately, he was wise enough to soon perceive that all the other teachers were quite busy and he had enough initiative to ask questions. I am so glad that he did. He has been doing a great job.

Reading Underground History and The Global Achievement Gap at nearly the same time produced one great irony. An Underground History of American Education notes that a lot of the worst of the present system came out of the era of the robber barons and was based on social Darwinism and progressivism. It appears that there are “elite” schools, but if the non-elite schools fail, it is no big deal. Those students are meant to be peons anyhow.

Wagner says that he came up with his seven points and some of his solutions by getting input for today’s robber baron and elitist types. He mentions Microsoft, Silicon Valley, Apple, and so on. Are his “solutions” much different from what already exists? Is the need for technicians much different from the need for administrators promoted by the Fords, Carnegies, and Woodrow Wilsons?

While there is a certain amount of overlap between An Underground History of American Education and The Global Achievement Gap, it seems that Underground History relates a lot more to Throwing Stones at the Google Bus while The Global Achievement Gap is closer to Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. I suspect that there is still a trap—that Wagner’s approach still ends up treating a lot of smart kids as though they are stupid. Yes, we like those high-powered techies, but we still need baristas at Starbucks. Any way you cut it, the teacher makes the difference.

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