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Northeast Arkansas Morning News


Schools Don't Need Snake Oil

February 03, 2009

By Jay P. Greene

Fayetteville Public Schools purchased 2,000 copies of Tony Wagner’s “The Global Achievement Gap” and organized a series of public fora to discuss how that book might guide our schools. The District is to be commended for engaging the community in this process. But it is unclear why the district selected Wagner’s book as the focus of this discussion.

Wagner’s book makes claims about what skills students really need to learn, what is blocking them from learning those skills, what countries are more successful in teaching these skills, and what some schools are doing to remedy the problem. But he provides no systematic evidence to substantiate any one of these claims. In short, the br.rok is a series of anecdotes that more closely resembles what one would find in a self-help manual than in a work of social science. If we apply our critical thinking skills, which Wagner says are essential, we should reject this book as a sound basis for planning the future of Fayetteviile schools.

First, Wagner says there are seven essential survival skills that our children need to learn. How does he know that these are the essential skills? He chatted with a CEO on an airplane and selected a few more to interview. Does he review any research on the types of skills that predict who will become successful adults? No. Wagner relies upon the authority of his experience and the experiences of a handful of corporate executives to identify the essential skills. Accepting claims on this basis would be the sort of thing we would hope people with critical thinking skills might reject.

Frankly, the seven skills he lists - critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication, analysis and imagination - seem reasonable enough, but they are also so vague as to be unhelpful in informing schools about what to do. How exactly do we produce critical thinking or adaptability or creativity? It’s not as if educators have been unaware of these goals, but they haven’t generally been effective at developing strategies to achieve them.

Then Wagner identifies what he believes is blocking the acquisition of these seven essential skills - high stakes testing. What evidence does he present to support this claim? Again, he presents no systematic evidence to demonstrate that there is a tradeoff between the content knowledge required in accountability testing and the essential skills he wants. Couldn’t it be the case that improving mastery of basic skills and content knowledge provides the foundation for these seven skills? It’s hard to be imaginative, analytical, etc... without knowing subject matter and basic skills of literacy and numeracy. Einstein may have said “imagination is more important than knowledge,” as the book’s dedication indicates, but Einstein couldn’t have succeeded without a firm grasp of advanced mathematics.

If Wagner were right that accountability testing undermines essential skills, then surely these skills must have been more plentiful before testing became as salient as it is today. But Wagner does not (and cannot) provide any evidence to show that. Instead, he shows (on page 74) that students in the United States significantly lag students in Finland, Hong Kong-China, Japan and Korea in certain problem solving skills on an international test called PISA. As it turns out, high stakes testing is extremely prominent in most of these countries with strong problem solving results -- a fact curiously at odds with Wagner’s claims. If accountability testing undermines essential skills, why do countries with such strong accountability systems manage to succeed so well in teaching the essential skills Wagner wants?

Wagner describes three model schools that he says have been effective at teaching essential skills (although he again tails to provide any evidence that they are as successful as he claims). But it is by no means clear that the approaches adopted by these three schools are the only valid approaches or that they could be replicated easily by others. Replication is especially problematic because the three models he provides are all charter schools or alternative schools of choice. Perhaps the secret of these schools’ success has something to do with school choice and not the features he describes. If true, it’s not clear how Fayetteville could imitate the success of these schools.

To achieve our goals in education we have to adopt approaches backed by systematic evidence. If we believe critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity are the most important goals for schools, then we need systematic evidence on systems of teacher preparation, curriculum, and pedagogy that effectively produce those goals. There is a growing body of scientific research on these issues, including a number of studies sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences, that the Fayetteville Public Schools might wish to consider rather than consulting with the latest peddler of educational snake-oil.

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