Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Prophet of Education Continues to Prophesy the Doom of Public Education: Tony Wagner’s Keynote to NCNSP Summer Institute

Today, I had an opportunity to hear Tony Wagner, author of the book The Global Achievement Gap give a keynote speech at the North Carolina New Schools Project (NCNSP) Annual Summer Institute. I have read Wagner’s book two times and it is one of many books now that sound the clarion call to educators about reinventing public schools to meet the needs of 21st century students. Wagner conducted a study in which he interviewed business executives and university professors and asked them about the kinds of skills students need to learn in order to be successful in today’s global economy. This research led Wagner to promote what he calls the Seven Survival Skills. They are:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  2. Collaboration Across Networks
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills list directly parallels Wagner’s list at many points. (See the Partnership for 21st Century Skills List here.)

During his keynote, Wagner reviewed his list of skills and most of what he has published in his book. Some of the points he made are what many teachers have found out while working hard in the trenches adhering to the dictates of NCLB. First of all, he stated that our classes have become test prep classes. Since No Child Left Behind became law, our classrooms have become places where the entire focus is on the tests. He pointed out that it is possible for a school to meet AYP requirements and still fail students. He also repeated what many of us who work in schools today have been saying for some time, “What get’s tested get’s taught.” Wagner’s points about testing are made in his book too, but they are really not anything new. Teachers and administrators have been trying to tell education policymakers this for years.

It was Tony Wagner’s final three points of the speech that caught my attention. First of all, he called for a new accountability system he entitled “Accountability 2.0.” This new accountability system is based on new assessments of a more authentic nature that capture the seven survival skills he advocates. Secondly, Wagner called for “school-based R and D.” These schools would be places where teaching and learning are studied and explored. Finally, he called for “performance standards to license and re-certify teachers.” Teachers and administrators would be required to develop and maintain “portfolios” that basically illustrate their effectiveness. Teachers could place reflections, videos of teaching, and other artifacts that capture their effectiveness in these portfolios. Principals could do the same thing. As a practicing administrator, I know our public is going to demand some kind of accountability system, and his mention that if tests are used as a part of that accountability system, they must be adequate for that purpose. I’m still professionally cautious about the test-used-as-evaluation conversation because education policymakers have been known to let financial considerations determine the quality of tests used.

I am also not excited about Wagner’s suggestion of a professional portfolio to be assembled by educators. The demands of the classroom and of the administrative offices make me question whether any teacher has the time to assemble this portfolio he advocates. There was an attempt several years ago in North Carolina to ask teachers to assemble this kind of portfolio, and the state legislature actually passed a law forbidding the use of such an evaluation method. Basically the whole idea sounds like he advocates that every teacher and administrator justify his or her existence at the end of every year. I just can’t agree that this proposal is a move into the 21st century. It is actually a rehashing of an idea from the 1990s. How many other professions have to prove their effectiveness at the end of every year with some massive portfolio? That should do wonders to reduce any teacher surplus that exists.

I would agree with Wagner about the need for Research and Development schools, but I do not think they necessarily have to be special schools set aside for the this purpose. If school reinvention is that imperative, then every school should be trying to re-invent what it is doing. Good teachers and administrators work constantly at trying to find better ways to reach their students. Why can’t we just create the kinds of conditions in all our schools that make it possible for innovation and reinvention?

Overall, Tony Wagner’s keynote was a repetition of the things he says in his book The Global Achievement Gap. He continues to sound the warning message to public education that Willard Dagget and Ray McNulty did at the Model Schools Conference I attended last week in Orlando. Most of us who work in the schools know too well the truth of what these education prophets of doom are prophesying. We know schools have to change to meet the needs of 21st century students, but we are still surrounded by a culture and bureaucracy that seeks to preserve what is. Quit talking about where we need to go and help us remove these obstacles to change.

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  1. I agree that the portfolio idea is a bit scary. It's one thing to develop something freely, or for a certification like the national board. But to require it for everyone could very well become a logistical nightmare. I shudder thinking about how we follow rules for student accountability. It could be worse. I too enjoy his thinking with regards to innovation. That is critical. Thanks for the post. Glad you got to see him!

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful reactions to the keynote address. We've linked to your post on the NCNSP Facebook page and Twitter feed -- hope you get some extra reads.