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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
By Tony Wagner
Basic Books
HC, 288 pgs. US$26.95
ISBN: 0-4650-0229-3

Giving education a failing grade

By Steven Martinovich
web posted December 22, 2008

The Global Achievement GapNot long ago an email made the rounds which contained sample questions from an elementary school test from the late 1800s, arguing that today's students have it easy compared to the rigorous curriculum that their peers had to memorize more than a century ago. The premise of the email was flawed on several counts, not the least of which was that education has changed dramatically. Today's students, just like those in one room school houses, are forced to memorize a large volume of information in order to pass tests.

So argues Tony Wagner in 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, an indictment of an American education system he says is more interested in teaching to tests than teaching young people critical skills they'll need to survive in the ever-changing global economy. Wagner believes that in an age where information on nearly every conceivable topic is available at our fingertips, it's more important to teach critical thinking than forcing students to regurgitate information with no context on a state-level test.

Wagner charges that schools have become factories in which students are essentially being taught to pass tests mandated by legislation which includes No Child Left Behind. Even Advanced Placement classes, which presumably drill down deeper into the curriculum, generally have a shoddy approach to preparing students for post secondary education, one reason why an increasing number of colleges and universities are offering remedial programs for incoming undergrads to teach them the basic skills they are missing.

"What I have seen in some of our best public schools over the past decade is that while Johnny and Juan and Leticia are learning how to read, at last at a basic level, they are not learning how to think or care about what they read; nor are they learning to clearly communicate ideas orally and in writing. … Not knowing how to interpret statistics or gauge probability, many students cannot make sense of the graphs or charts they see every day in the newspaper. … Finally, I have observed that the longer our children are in school, they less curious they become."

Wagner's tonic is what he calls his Seven Survival Skills which he argues is necessary to raise successful students and ultimately successful citizens. He believes that America's schools are failing to instill critical thinking, problem solving, adaptability, curiosity and initiative, among other traits, in students in favour of them memorizing (and likely soon forgetting) information. Lest the reader believe his list is the result of some woolgathering rather than real world experimentation, he takes us on a tour of several schools which are taking a different approach to education and with the same or fewer resources than mainstream public schools and are turning out marvelously prepared students.

A critic could argue, given the history of education reform, that Wagner's prescriptions are merely the latest idée du jour which work in small, isolated pockets but aren't scalable to a national level, yet another reform that an ambitious administrator will order implemented before being forgotten a few years later. What is indisputable, however, is his contention that students are suffering for a lack of the skills that Wagner argues are indispensible in today's world. It's showing in comparisons between American students and their foreign peers and when they show up at universities unable to turn in first year papers which cogently dissect and argue a point of view.

Whether Wagner's identified survival skills are a cure-all for the American education system is something that can only be known if they're introduced to mainstream classroom. It's difficult to believe, however, that he's wrong that American students are graduating high school without needed skills despite the fact that they are working harder than ever. The Global Achievement Gap needs to be on the reading list of every teacher, administrator, PTA member, parent, governor and whoever ends up as Barack Obama's education secretary. ESR

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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