Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System is Failing and What We Can Do About It
by Ronald A. Wolk
Reviewed by Renee Moore, NBCT
Teacher Leaders Network
In a wonderfully well-timed blessing, I received a copy of Ronald Wolk's new book, Wasting Minds. Wolk is the founder and former, longtime editor of Education Week. His well-grounded and thoughtful reflections on the conditions and, more important, on the future of U.S. education echo those of many others looking at the future of education. This growing consensus, small though it is at present, bodes well for our nation and our children. Without a vision, the people perish.
Wolk's contribution to this discussion is particularly helpful because it is so succinctly and directly stated. He divides the book into two parts: faulty assumptions and new visions. He begins with a highly accurate analysis of the problems with our current systems of education, based on his long history of documenting education reform efforts. Wolk rightly notes that because of our tendency to switch too quickly from one reform attempt to the next, we have very little longitudinal information on the outcomes of these prior efforts.
His primary assertion, and one with which I strongly agree, is that "we will make real progress only when we realize our problem in education is not mainly one of performance but one of design" (p. 25). In the current education reform push, we are trying to put better "parts" into an archaic machine engineered to produce what is no longer needed.
Furthermore, education inequality is not just a byproduct of this system but is, in fact embedded, into its very structure. Failure to recognize this has led us to this dangerously circular reasoning: That we can close achievement gaps or significantly improve the quality of education for historically underserved populations of students without completely redesigning the school systems that serve them.
Wolk cites numerous court cases from around the country and the Supreme Court that have declared, "If students are required to meet high academic standards to be promoted or to graduate, then public schools are obligated to provide them with an education that is adequate for them to accomplish that" (p. 89).
Wolk also points out that as we have pushed further and further into reliance on standardized testing, we have moved farther from what knowledge students actually need to succeed in modern life. Employers, as well as colleges, are increasingly pointing out that the skills they need public school graduates to have are not the ones we are measuring in the current state standardized testing. What the expanding role of testing has done is suck tremendous amounts of much-needed resources from school systems. Wolk cites two major studies that put that cost nationally between $500 million and $22 billion.
Wolk's bold questioning extends to another almost religiously held view in today's reform conversation: putting a highly qualified teacher in every classroom. He calls this goal good but impossible. His logic is that in a field as large as teaching, there will continue to be a range of quality, and although we should work harder to eliminate those who clearly do not belong in a classroom, the rest should not only be distributed across schools but, more important, receive ongoing support toward continuous improvement.
Despite misconceptions about the reach of collective bargaining agreements, Wolk correctly observes that teachers actually have very little control over most of the key aspects of our classroom work and school operations. He asks, "How can anyone believe that the goal of placing a 'good' teacher in every classroom can be achieved without changing the conditions in which teachers work—the way schools are structured and operated?" (p. 62). The sad truth is if we did have a highly qualified teacher right now to put in every classroom in the United States, many of them who don't quit or aren't run out for refusing to toe the standardized line may well end up burned out, frustrated, and mediocre.
Summarizing the paradox that has plagued teaching in the United States throughout its history, Wolk concludes, "Although we refer to teaching as a profession, not much about the job is professional. Professionals like doctors and lawyers set their own performance standards, hold their members accountable for meeting those standards, determine to a large degree . . . their own working conditions, and receive compensation perceived to be commensurate with their professional contributions to society" (p. 59). These professional characteristics are denied to the vast majority of U.S. schoolteachers.
Most impressive, however, are Wolk's suggestions about what we need to do to correct many of these problems, and primary on that list is a compelling argument to redesign education around more individualized student learning. This closely parallels the vision of my teacher leader colleagues in our book Teaching 2030 (see the related video and blog post).
Teachers will more and more become what Wolk calls "advisors who guide students in educating themselves" (p. 101). On the surface, this seems like a radical, and to some even irresponsible, conception of teachers' work. In reality, students and their families are already rapidly moving toward a much more personalized approach to shaping their own learning. Certainly, the incredible growth and influence of social media tools is one driving force in that shift. Another is the growing realization that children do not learn all things at the same pace and in the same way, and that we do them a great disservice when we try to force them into such fast-food-style learning patterns.
Of all Wolk's recommendations, the idea of letting students (and their parents) direct their own learning is the one that may make some in education and policy most uncomfortable. An important aspect of system redesign that would support this is greater use of performance-based assessments. He lists several of the most common reasons more schools and districts have not embraced such assessments. Curiously, two that he does not mention are the higher cost and the more insidious philosophical view that education really should be indoctrination (and that view is held on the left and the right of the political spectrum); therefore, assessment should simply be regurgitation.
In line with his vision of the future, Wolk argues as I have, that we need to do away with the practice of dividing children by age into grade levels, making our learning systems truly integrated and seamless from prekindergarten through college.
Ronald Wolk may prove to be one of many prophets crying in the wilderness of education reform, but as Barnett Berry notes in his prologue to Teaching 2030, "We cannot create what we cannot imagine."