Wasting Time and Money

Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System is Failing and What We Can Do About It
by Ronald A. Wolk
(ASCD, 199 pp., $26.95)

I have to agree with Ronald Wolk whose new book, Wasting Minds, has recently come across my desk for review. As he says in his introduction, there is little or no evidence to suggest that the last quarter of a century of school reform has resulted in significant change or improvement. If the nation’s number one goal is to raise the level of student academic achievement, an assumption that appears to inform all reform initiatives, then all this effort, despite the millions of dollars invested in this enterprise, must be regarded as a total failure. Why is this the case? In Ronald Wolk’s view it is principally because:

(1) The unintended consequences of NCLB are so deleterious as to make it an educational travesty

(2) The standards movement, while laudable in its intent, does not square with the conventional structure of our 19th century school system. In particular, teachers are not taught in ed schools how to meet these standards.

(3) The single-minded focus on standardized tests to evaluate student and teacher performance has been counter-productive. Wolk quotes from Diane Ravitch, “Test-driven accountability has turned into a nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly in basic skills, but were often ignorant about everything else.

(4) The difficulty of attracting bright, committed young people to the profession is exacerbated by the complexities of union contracts, poor working conditions and lack of support in the classroom. Most conspicuously, teachers have too little opportunity to collaborate and work in teams and thus to learn from each other.

Unlike many other books on school reform, Wolk identifies concrete solutions:

(1) Replacing the one-size-fits-all formula. Wolk recommends an education system flexible enough to respond to individual student needs, such as is exemplified in particular by the Metropolitan Career and Technical Academy in Rhode Island, and in general  by the 70 so-called “Big Picture” Learning schools.

(2) Making greater use of real-world contexts both inside and outside of the classroom, which would motivate students as being relevant.

(3) Assessing student achievement based on multiple measures, focusing on students’ actual work, rather than on so-called objective testing which ends up being anything but objective.

(4) Revolutionizing ways in which teachers are prepared, with adequate induction procedures and conversance with a multiplicity of teaching techniques.

Ronald Wolk is the first to concede that his suggestions—and I have not listed them all–may not be a complete answer. Indeed, given the conservative nature of the entire educational enterprise, new approaches are hard to implement. All the traditional structures, i.e. school boards, teacher unions, schools of education, etc. are potentially impediments to change, and Ronald Wolk recognizes them as such. Certainly the present system is not working well, especially in cities. I believe we should give at least some and possibly all of Ronald Wolk’s proposals a chance.

-A. Graham Down

You can find more book reviews by Graham Down here.

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