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The Global Achievement Gap

Book coverThe Global Achievement Gap, a new book by Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group, examines the U.S. education system in the 21st century, considers why American students are falling behind their international peers, and proposes methods to begin to correct the downward slide. In this Q&A, Wagner addresses this gap and offers advice on how educators can begin to close it.

What is the global achievement gap? The global achievement gap is the gap between what we are teaching and testing in our schools, even in the ones that are most highly-regarded, versus the skills all students will need for careers, college, and citizenship in the 21st century.

Why are American students lagging behind international students? Several reasons. First and foremost, most of the tests we use for accountability purposes are multiple choice assessments that require very little thinking. By contrast, all of the countries in Europe who outscore us on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests rely on oral and written exams and even student interviews to determine competence. Assessment drives instruction -- for better or for worse. Secondly, we have not developed the curricula or teaching methods for teaching all students how to reason, analyze, write well, and so on. We have not made teaching all students how to think -- versus merely [how to] memorize -- a priority in American public schools. A serious side effect of a curriculum based mainly on memorization is student boredom. And boredom -- not lack of skills -- is the number one cause of high school dropouts. Our high school graduation rate is now 10th among the industrialized countries. Finally, in leading countries like Finland, the teaching profession has been "reinvented." There are a few very high national standards, which are tested through sampling, and local schools and districts are expected to figure out how to teach and test these high standards. They have transformed teaching from an "assembly line" job into a high status "knowledge worker" job. The result is only a 5% variance between their highest versus their lowest performing schools.

How did you determine the seven survival skills* deemed necessary in the 21st century workforce? Why are these skills more vital than others? Through interviews with scores of business leaders -- from Apple to Unilever to the US Army -- and by reviewing numerous studies about the skills employers want and the deficiencies in the current workforce. Many of these studies list dozens of skills, so I tried to pull out the ones that business leaders told me were the most important skills needed to adapt to a rapidly changing world. And so they are not just the skills one needs for work, they are also the skills all of us need to be engaged and effective citizens in a 21st century democracy, as well as to be life-long learners.

Is it realistic for teachers to focus on critical thinking and the other survival skills while preparing students for tests and assessments? First, teachers (and districts) have to give up trying to do just test prep. At best, that focus gets only slight improvements in test scores, which does not necessarily translate into students being better readers, writers, and thinkers. By contrast, in the three schools I profile in the last chapter of the book, there are no AP courses offered, and the schools refuse to teach to the state tests, but all three schools do well on state assessments, graduate 100 percent of their students, and almost all go on to college. They are so successful because they have required all students to demonstrate mastery in the skills the matter most: analysis, writing, and so on. Kids who do these things well will also do well on state tests.

How can we create a testing system that will measure student's critical thinking ability rather than their just their test taking ability? Instead of testing every student at the state level, we need test sample populations as we do with NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), so that we can afford to use better assessments. Then districts will have to develop local assessments for all students which are modeled after the new state assessments and are embedded into all courses and grade levels.

If American schools are already behind, will any improvements to the existing school system allow it to produce graduates ready to compete in the global business world? Quite simply, we need to expect all teachers to teach all students how to think and communicate effectively, and they need to assess these skills and benchmark expectations to what the world will require of our high school graduates. And this needs to happen every day in every class and at all grade levels. If we do this in all of our schools, while also stimulating curiosity and imagination, then all students will have the skills they need to get and keep a good job and be a contributing citizen, while our country will have a workforce that can continually produce innovations. An economy based on innovation will be more competitive and successful than any other in the 21st century.

* Ed. Note: According to Wagner, the seven survival skills are critical thinking and problem solving; collaboration across networks and leading by influence; agility and adaptability; initiative and entrepreneurship; effective oral and written communication; accessing and analyzing information; and curiosity and imagination.


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