Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith (Scribner, 2015), 296 pages.
I like to read books on the problems of the US educational system. I spent 15 years as an adjunct professor (and 3 years on a tenure track) in computer science at two universities, one at the graduate level, and my wife has taught classes in art, journalism, and computers for grades from kindergarten through high school. So together we have every phase of education covered, K through graduate school. We aren’t just familiar the problems of the US educational system because we’ve read about them, but because we have seen them first hand over a long period of time, from 1984 to today.
Having said, that, I’m not sure I agree with every conclusion or recommendation this book makes, but in my eyes the current system is so broken that almost any change will be a change for the better.
I have a lot to say on this topic, so let me run down the authors’ major points and then I’ll add some comments of my own based on my own experience (and my wife Camille’s).
The subtitle is “Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era.” Dintersmith is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur and coupled with educational specialist Wagner to point out that kids in the US today are ill-prepared to think originally or even compose a decent paper designed to define a product or found a business. Instead, we focus on deeper and deeper “advanced placement” (AP) trivia and “teaching to the test” (formulated here as “Drill, baby, drill!”). This is all done in the name of “preparing children for college,” even to extend of citing that as the reason for cancelling the kindergarten play (I’m not kidding: that’s on page 38).
The book goes through the limitations of testing, especially the SATs and AP tests (page 211), and the fact that what most students learn in college today is NOT what they need to know (page 147).
I like the authors’ proposal that schools should give out “merit badges” for mastery of topics (page 227). You want an A? Get five merit badges and trade them in for an A at the end of the term. There’s much more, and I think anyone interested in where we need to go with schools today should read the book and form their own opinion.
Why is it like this? I’ve read that the school system in England – which America adapted with minor changes – being primarily adapted to the needs of bureaucrats and clerks for the British Empire. The system could take a child educated in New Zealand and post them to India without worry: their handwriting, vocabulary, math, and composition skills were absolutely compatible. This system was attractive to the growing US, which is not an empire but still one of the largest countries in the world (along with Canada, Russia, Brazil, India, and China).
One of the things I know that I wish I saw more often in books like this is why teachers have tenure, get to retire with pensions after (in many cases) 20 years, and are so poorly paid compared to almost any other occupation that requires post-high-school training.
I’d take these on one at a time, but they are all related. Even in the 1800s, there was no way a public school teacher (a state government employee) was going to make as much money as someone working in private industry. Even if we just consider women, the same is true (I’m not being sexist: just acknowledging most public school teachers were female back then, especially below the high school level). Women could work as nurses or for the telephone company (starting around 1880) and make a lot more than a teacher. What’s more, the telephone company didn’t require any training investment at all, which teaching did. So how could you make sure there were enough teachers for the growing population?
The solution, which also applied to government employees in general, was to compensate the teachers who had to struggle with sub-par wages in other ways. For instance, after some period of working in the classroom, teachers would be unionized and granted tenure, which meant they could not be fired except with great difficulty. Workers in the private sector, on the other hand, unionized with great peril and could be fired at any time for any reason whatsoever. Job security compensated for low wages. It was still a hard sell, so eventually teachers could earn a modest pension (and retire, leaving room for newer teachers) much faster than workers in the private sector. Oh, and when the farm kids were off during the summer to tend the herds and flocks and crops, the teachers were too (who would they teach when no one was there?).
For some reason, people lost sight of this public/private distinction and began stripping away what little job security or pension rights teachers had, in many cases gutting the power of their unions. Teachers became the focus of all the attention given to the US education system, as if the teachers had decided to neglect their field all at once. As a result, in Arizona (where we live) and some other states, there is a tremendous shortage of teachers. High school and college grads looked at the abuse heaped on teachers, as well as the tiny pay scales, and decided “Who needs that?” Here in Arizona, it is next impossible for a single teacher to buy a house (or even sometimes a car, because of crippling student loans), and if one teacher marries another (and many do), a house is still often out of reach.
In Arizona, there is also a great movement toward charter schools and home schooling. So let me say a few words about that (full disclosure: my wife is a public school teacher). I don’t mind charter schools per se. However, as the book points out (page 57), charter schools do only marginally better on standard tests than public school children.
Finally, I have to say that I don’t get very excited about home schooling. I tell people “*All* children are home schooled…” because I don’t think learning stops when you leave school. I think what you learn in a public environment is socialization (very important for young children) and that there are many types of people, adults and children alike, out there. Moreover, I remain unconvinced that a parent busy with ordinary household chores can find the time to educate himself or herself enough to teach children every subject in the broad curriculum to the depth needed to raise intellectually competitive citizens in today’s world.
Let me leave you with one other story, also based on my own experience with children as “learning machines.” It’s just what they do. If you look at the vocabulary of a child entering school at age five and the vocabulary of an eleven-year-old, the math shows that they have been learning four or five new words per day, effortlessly and without drilling, review, or tests. Yet if you put them in school and hand them a list of thirty or so words on Monday and say “Learn these! There will be a test on these of Friday! If you fail the test, you’ll have to take it again next week, plus the new words.” they couldn’t do it. And that, I claim, is what’s wrong with the American educational system today.