BOOK REVIEW: “The Global Achievement Gap” by Tony Wagner (2010)

The Global Achievement GapThis week’s edition of The Economist contains a review and discussion of Amanda  Ripley’sThe Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.” The book readdresses the paradox that the USA has the best universities in the world but does badly on international tests in secondary education.  The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranking places the US 25th out of 56 participating countries for mathematical skills, just ahead of Latvia, and behind the Slovak Republic.  Ms. Ripley’s book is largely reiterating many of the ideas by Tony Wagner in his book, “The Global Achievement Gap.”  Ignored for several years when it was first written, it has today become a highly influential book. 

Key Words

Education, secondary education,  higher education, US educational system, leadership, human resource.


Secondary education in the US

Secondary education in the US today is obsessed with testing.

According to Mr. Wagner, the main problem with secondary education in the US today is the obsession with testing.  The ‘no child left behind’ policy introduced by George Bush has meant that high schools do not want to be stigmatized for having low scores.  So what do they do? They put their students through a barrage of tests, to ensure improved scores.  In New York today, students take between 6 and 15 standardized tests a year.  According to Mr. Wagner, their claims that it is a diagnostic test are misleading.  In fact, the school is just preparing them for the final exam.

Critical thinking tests

In terms of critical thinking, the US education system lags behind many other countries.

Mr. Wagner claims that he isn’t against tests per se, providing that they are the type of tests that enhance critical thinking.  However, the type of cheat to grade, multiple choice questions that students are being forced to digest reduce rather than increase their critical thinking.  Why is this important? It matters because the numerous business leaders that Mr. Wagner talked to, for his research for this book, said that what they needed in their companies was an ability to solve problems.  He quotes Mark Chandler from Cisco, who says that the company needs leadership and creativity skills, but they are just not finding that type of talent coming through from the US education system.  Mark Maddox, HR Manager of Unilever Foods North America, says that US companies are no longer competing locally, but at a global level.  However, as the PISA results show, there are countries that are a lot better at training their students as critical thinkers.  In other words, if you are a multinational corporation, which requires employees who can problem solve, there are, according to Mr. Wagner, many countries they would consider before setting up in the United States.

High Tech High

100% acceptance at universities for HTH students thanks to cross-disciplined teaching.

The book is a powerful argument against the current system that exists in the US.  Its strength is that it looks at the problems of testing systems that exist today, takes opinion from a variety of people in academia and in business, and also offers some possible solutions.  One very interesting example is High Tech High (HTH), core-based in the San Diego area, which has 3,000 students.  Within the school, cross-disciplined teaching is encouraged, and students are often given problems and then required to solve them as teams.  100% of their students have been accepted to college, and 80% to 4-year colleges, including big names like MIT, Stanford, USC, Berkeley, and NYU.

Interesting Quotes

Only about a third of U.S. high school students graduate ready for college today, and the rates are much lower for poor and minority students.  Forty percent of all students who enter college must take remedial courses.

Sixty five percent of college professors report that what is taught in high school does not prepare students for college.

What I see there is, in fact, not very different from what I saw thirty-five years ago when I began my career as a teacher- or even what I experienced as a high school student myself.  No better, and no worse.  Just more testing- and more teaching to the tests.

Annmarie Neal, vice president for Talent Management at Cisco Systems, went on with a list of questions: “What do I really need to understand about this; what is the history; what are other people thinking about this; how does that all come together; what frames and models can we use to understand this from a variety of different angles and then come up with something different?”

Mark Maddox about global competition

Mark Maddox: We have to face not local but global competition nowadays.

Mark Maddox, human resources manager at Unilever Foods North America: “We’re not competing for jobs just in neighboring towns.  We’re competing with Bangalore, India.  It’s a global competition.  That’s the challenge we’re all going to face.”

Annmarie Neal explained that the mastery of such skills is, in fact, quite difficult for many in the corporations where she’s worked.  “It’s hard for people in the U.S. to work globally because they are used to being in control.

Mark Chandler from Cisco was perhaps the biggest proponent of these traits.  “Leadership is the capacity to take initiatives and trust yourself to be creative,” he told me.  “I say to my employees if you try five things and get all five of them right, you may be failing.  If you try ten things, and get eight of them right, you’re a hero.”

Fifth graders spent more than 90 percent of their time in their seats listening to the teacher or working alone and only about 7 percent of their time working in groups.

Some say, and I agree, that teaching to the test isn’t necessarily bad- as long as it’s a good test!

We keep hearing that all students need more math and science courses, but I believe that all students need more engaging and relevant math and science courses.

Tony Wagner talks about 7 skills students need

U.S. students ranked 25th on the science test out of the fifty-six countries participating, just ahead of Latvia and just behind the Slovak Republic.

For some in this country, the only things that should be tested are facts, and nothing else matters.  Factual recall tests are also about ten times cheaper to develop and to score- which is another obvious reason for their popularity with state legislators.

In New York City today, students take anywhere between six and fifteen standardized tests a year! They try to claim that some of it is ‘diagnostic’ testing- but, really, they’re all just practice tests.

The problem with my proposal, of course, is that it appears to threaten what have been the twin pillars of the teaching profession for most of the last century- teacher autonomy (which we’ll explore in a moment) and tenure.

Mark Maddox on work ethic

Mark Maddox: “There’s a failure of work ethic in the younger employees.”

Echoing the concerns of many educators whom I’ve interviewed, Mark Maddox, human resources manager at Unilever Foods, is very worried about people coming into the workforce today.  “There’s a failure of work ethic in the younger employees,” he said.  “They don’t want to work weekends, or long hours- they’re disgruntled with putting in 110 percent.  They don’t see it like we used to see it.”

James Paul Gee has also studied gamers, and in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, he writes that “video games make players think like scientists.  Game play is built on a cycle of ‘hypothesize, probe the world, get a reaction, reflect on the results, reprobe to get better results,’ a cycle typical of experimental science.”

K-12 public charter schools

K-12 network is currently serving about 3,000 students in the San Diego area.

High Tech High (HTH) is a school development organization that runs a growing network of K-12 public charter schools currently serving about 3,000 students in the San Diego area- in effect, a “mini” school district.

Since graduating its first class in 2003, 100 percent of High Tech High students have been accepted to college- 80 percent to four-year colleges, including John Hopkins University, MIT, Stanford, Howard, University of Southern California, University of California at Berkeley, NYU, and Northwestern.  More than half of HTH grads are first-generation college students…

“Rigor is being in the company of a thoughtful, passionate, reflective adult who invites you into an adult conversation which is composed of the rigorous pursuit of inquiry.”

Nearly 2,500 years ago, Socrates was considered a very effective teacher, and he would be today as well.  Yet it is rare to find examples of the Socratic teaching method in K-12 schools today because of their narrow focus on memorization of content.

I do not believe that all students need to go to college to have a rewarding and successful life.  Some kids choose not to go to college and instead enter a trade, preferring to work with their hands.  But I think all students should have the choice of whether to go to college.

Clay Parker told me that the most important workplace skills today are asking the right questions and engaging others in vital conversations.  I was skeptical then.  It was difficult for me to believe that these skills, which I have long valued as a teacher in classrooms, might be just as important to business leaders in boardrooms.  Having been on this journey of discovery for several years now, I know that he was right.

Tony Wagner talks about the book


See also:

Other Book Reviews

Wagner, Tony. (2008). The Global Achievement Gap. New York, NY., Basic Books

Education Review: “The book is written from the point of view of a Harvard university professor who has had years of experiences working with school development and improvement. The writer uses some statistical facts regarding the high school education, college education, job markets, and citizenship performance face America to introduce the issue of the global achievement gap.”

The Global Achievement Gap

Seeking Growth: “He also recognizes that to motivate students in today’s digital media environment we need to change how we teach them – with more media, interactivity, peer interaction, rapid metric-based feedback, real world projects and success coaching.”  

Journal Articles – The Global Achievement Gap

NACADA: “Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap, is an extremely insightful read from an Academic Advisor’s perspective.  From discussing skills sets that employers seek, to explaining in detail the test-prep curriculum in K-12 schools, professional advisors can gain a deeper understanding of the educational storylines lived by our students before they arrive on our campuses.”

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Filed under Book Review, Careers, Education, Higher Education, human resources, Leadership, Management, New York, USA

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