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Finally some sense about 21st century skills--part three, the Wagner dialogue

As promised, to end this series on adjusting schools to the new economy, I had an email chat with Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of "The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need--and What We Can Do About It." We limited ourselves to no more than 100 words per response, to keep it moving. Here goes:

Mathews: I loved your book, as you saw in my review last week. It is the best book ever written about the 21st century skills movement. But why were you so hard on Advanced Placement? There are many AP teachers who think the program is terrific for the typical schools where they work (you focused on some of the tiny upper crust schools that are a different issue) and who are trying to do everything you and I want them to do. Why not see AP (and IB, which is pretty near exactly what you want) as a great platform for change rather than the enemy?

Wagner: APs require students to learn more challenging academic material than many classes. But what matters most today is what you can do with what you know. I think IB is a better standard for rigor in the 21st century because students have to apply what they’ve learned through in-depth research papers and projects. Students often take an entire AP curriculum and never write a single research paper—teachers say there’s too much content to cover. I did a focus group with students who had taken both, and they told me: “AP teaches you what to think. IB teaches you how to think.”

Mathews: Don't you see hope for moving AP in the right direction? They are revising their exams to make them deeper. Wouldn't it make more sense to encourage them in that direction rather than slap them around, as you do in your book?

Wagner: Can you revise a selectric typewriter to become a PC? The Carnegie Unit organization of the high school curriculum (and AP) is 116 years old, and students are passive consumers in most AP classes. Today’s students need to learn though more “minds on” interdisciplinary inquiry. Harvard, among others, is reinventing required courses organized around ways of thinking: “not to draw students into a discipline, but to bring the disciplines into students' lives ... in ways that link the arts and sciences with the 21st century world that students will face.” If AP can do this, I’m all for it!

Mathews: I have seen scores of AP teachers in every part of the country teach that way, with projects, simulations and long, deep conversations with their students. Haven't you? I would be shocked if you haven't, given your range of experience.

Wagner: Yes, of course, I have seen excellent teaching in AP classes--especially in those subjects that require less content, like English (which I taught.) But having observed several hundred classes over the past four decades, active inquiry-based learning is more the exception than the rule. And teachers who have taught AP in this way have told me that they feared their students might not get 5s, because they'd chosen depth over breadth. As you know, a growing number of both public and private schools are giving up AP in favor of IB or teacher-created curricula they consider more rigorous.

Mathews: The 50 or so private schools that have dropped AP for their own courses are tiny, precious and expensive, like that one you describe so well in your book. The only public school that has dropped AP that way is Scarsdale, which fits the same description. IB is growing, but slowly because of the cost. Meanwhile thousands of high schools are adding more AP courses, because they are better than what they have. You should look at the AP changes before you write them off and deny them a chance to learn from you. How did those AP students do when their teachers went deep? Got some data?

Wagner: I agree that many AP courses are better than non-AP, but my point is that AP is not the gold standard for rigor. None of the three public schools I profile offer AP because they’ve concluded that the tests assess students’ memorization skills much more than their ability to think. As for data—all the schools I profile (two of which serve predominantly minority students) graduate 100% of their students, and all go to college. How many districts track their cohort graduation and college success rates­? Answer: almost none. But they all know their AP scores. Which matters more for students’ future?

Mathews: That is pretty interesting. I often hear people yearn to know the college success rate of each high school. I share their feelings. But isn't that beyond our technical abilities for at least another decade, if not longer? You would have to tag every kid and make the private colleges report back. Wouldn't they fret about the cost? And if you left it up to high schools to track their grads, most could not afford it. I would rather spend that money raising teacher salaries.

Wagner: The National Student Clearinghouse tracks data for 92% of all post secondary students in the U.S., and it only costs about $425 per high school to find out which students actually went to college, whether they completed a degree, and how long it took. This information ought to be a part of every district's accountability plan (and the next version of NCLB)--especially since 1 out of every 2 students who start college never complete a degree. I also advocate conducting focus groups with recent high school grads to explore how well they felt they were prepared, etc--and videotaping them so that they can be discussed by faculty.

Mathews: I am astonished. Please tell me how they do that. I don't see how it is possible. The private colleges don't have to report that kind of data to anybody, do they?

Wagner: I'm afraid I can't help you on that one, Jay. You'll have to ask them. [Note from Mathews: I did. They say they are providing data on alumni college enrollment and graduation to 2,200 high schools, public and private, but have some Gates Foundation money to serve many more. They have data on nearly every college student in the country because of their role as a clearinghouse for student loan information.] But here's another resource your readers might not know about: the College and Work Readiness Assessment. It is an online test of critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and writing. High schools get a report back comparing their students' scores with those of freshman students in 200 colleges using the same test.

Mathews: Let's talk more about your book. You note that conservatives have blocked efforts to reduce the teaching of factual content in favor of more analysis and thought. But instead of starting a dialogue with them (good people who believe like you our kids need to learn how to think), you call for war. "Are we willing to confront the academic and financial conservatives who are holding our states' testing systems hostage?" you ask. Will a fight get us where we want to go? Can you cite an example of this approach working in the past?

Wagner: Sometimes people say ridiculous things and should be confronted: “I don’t want critical thinking taught to my kids because they will question their parents and church,” or “the only valid tests are tests of facts.”  Or most recently, the accusation that the Partnership for 21st Century Skills folks are in it just to sell technology­—or only care about skills and not academic content.  People who make such accusations are ignoring the evidence.  We urgently need a non-ideological dialogue about what it means to be an educated adult in the 21st century—that’s the dialogue that I call for in the conclusion to the book.

Mathews: So let's extend that discussion to HOW to get the level of content learning right in courses so it doesn't crowd out time for the Socratic dialogues and other thoughtful approaches you endorse. You saw me last week saying you punted by saying the content associations could take care of that. I said those were committees, and they would always recognize each member's favorite content, leaving us with another overstuffed bag. Isn't there a better way to do that?

Wagner: I share your concern.  In the book, I urge professional associations to define what it means to be literate in the different academic disciplines—which is different from making long lists of things to know.  Then educators must choose content that will engage their students intellectually and require them to apply what they have learned to new problems and questions.  In today’s world, the skills for what I call “just in time learning” are as important as the content of “timeless learning.”  And it is the assessment of these skills—along with evidence of students’ postsecondary success—that must be the foundation for a better accountability system. 

For more from Jay, go to

For all the Post's Education coverage, please see

By Jay Mathews  | December 18, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  2lst century skills, Advanced Placement, Tony Wagner, college graduation rates for each high school  
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You've got a tiger by the tail here, Jay. This discussion is a gold mine of the most important issues facing our REAL education system, not our overly-politicized "fake" eduction system, the one where testing and standards are more important than teaching and learning.

I've been in many schools that do both AP and IB. What I find is a cultural difference: AP kids are focused on passing AP tests; IB kids are focused on complex, though often less structured, learning opportunities. There is also a cultural probablem among teachers. AP teachers feel superior to non-AP teachers. IB teachers feel superior to everyone. So one reason I have heard several principals favor AP and bash IB is that including IB will create "too many camps" or divisions within the faculty.

As for me, I have been increasingly unhappy with the elitism -- and poor traditional teaching -- that I see in most AP classes. Some fine content experts, to be sure. But not cutting edge practice by any means. By contrast, the IB folks I've worked with have been warm, creative types who feel to me more like my favorite college profs, and who are far more likely to embrace good teaching practice.

In AP's corner, of course is near-lock it has on the market for advanced high school courses. Nothing like being 116 year old to create barriers to entry in a market!

The last thing I'll say is that AP feels piecemeal to me. I can take one class here, another there. IB seems more like an actual curriculum -- something that addresses the whole child, or at least a bit more of him or her than a given AP class or even a portfolio of AP classes would.

Like your interviewee, I've been in just about as many as schools as he has, though my visits have included teaching, training, and consulting, and have come mostly in the last 10 years. I dont' see AP going away any time soon. Nor do I see IB gaining much ground.

And, finally (again), the very best courses I find are always ones created by good teachers based on their passions and their students' needs. I'm really not a believer in curriculum because it smacks too much of social control and is really just a big message to the school that the teacher in question doesn't know his or her work well enough to develop a solid course.

I believe high school teaching should become much more like college by way of curriculum and more like elementary school by way of technique. Being a high school teacher ought to require that one develop one's own courses and teach them in a "best practice" style. In this world -- call it fantasy land, perhaps? -- we would have the best teachers, teaching the best stuff, the best way. That's what I'm looking for. Until then -- or until you-know-what freezes over -- I'm pretty happy with both AP and IB, and I understand why one is considerably more popular than the other.

Posted by: StevePeha | December 18, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps Steve is right. The problem with IB I see is that, unless you force students to take the whole Diploma Program(me) they are likely to sample what are called S/L courses which do not result in college credit. And they need not take the crown jewel IB course (Theories of Knowlege) which requires the major research paper. And if you do require the full Diploma, you make it very difficult for all but the brightest and most dedicated students to experience extra-curriculars and other parts of the high school experience.

But why argue when we can look at actual results? The National Student Clearinghouse reports show student by student how well they did in college completion. Why not ask our high schools to compare results for IB vs. AP grads and see if there is a difference in how well the programs have prepared them to stay in and complete college? In fact, given that having a high school track graduates through college, shouldn't we be insisting that they subscribe? Or is there some defect in the reports that makes them virtually worthless to Montgomery County, MD (one subscriber) or some of the other dozens of high schools that DO get the data on their grads?

Posted by: mct210 | December 18, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps Steve is right. The problem with IB I see is that, unless you force students to take the whole Diploma Program(me) they are likely to sample what are called S/L courses which do not result in college credit. And they need not take the crown jewel IB course (Theories of Knowlege) which requires the major research paper. And if you do require the full Diploma, you make it very difficult for all but the brightest and most dedicated students to experience extra-curriculars and other parts of the high school experience.

But why argue when we can look at actual results? The National Student Clearinghouse reports show student by student how well they did in college completion. Why not ask our high schools to compare results for IB vs. AP grads and see if there is a difference in how well the programs have prepared them to stay in and complete college? In fact, given that having a high school track graduates through college, shouldn't we be insisting that they subscribe? Or is there some defect in the reports that makes them virtually worthless to Montgomery County, MD (one subscriber) or some of the other dozens of high schools that DO get the data on their grads?

Posted by: mct210 | December 18, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

thanks very much for these comments. Have either of you, or anyone else reading this, taken a careful look at the changes AP is making in their exams? I have not, yet, but it is high on my list for the new year.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 18, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

It is too bad this discussion has degenerated into a debate on the merits of AP versus IB.

As a former public school board member I can say our district looked at some of the post high school follow up data you mention. It's not expensive and it's not that helpful in determining what secondary pedagogical approaches are most effective for college success.

As in secondary education, success in post-secondary endeavors are driven by a host of factors, not least being economics and family support.

Posted by: speakuplouder | December 18, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

AP teaches you what to think. IB teaches you how to think.”
What a great improvement!

Thinking the process of wading through thousands of facts and ideas will now be made teachable to discern the connecting pathways or predominant factors that characterize the swamp. And of course the educators will grade the students on their ability of providing the same thoughts that approximate the worn out thoughts of the educators.

I think how my educators have taught me how to think, therefore I Be.

Posted by: bsallamack | December 18, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Thank you to Mr. Mathews for bringing Wagner's "Global Achievement Gap" book to my attention since I immediately got a copy at the public library and read it. I was pleased as punch to see that for an education consultant, he gets it with his recognition that information access and analysis is one of the critical skillsets of students in today's global society. And who is the educator that is most qualified to provide the keys to accessing and analyzing information? The school librarian! Sadly, either school administrators seem to not understand what school librarians do or they don't connect the work of school librarians to the bigger picture of preparing students for success in college and to be engaged and knowledgable citizens.

My highly ranked school district eliminated secondary school librarians this year, despite having an IB program and vigorous AP programs at its high schools. Teachers and students need access to a school librarian in order to be able to produce respectable research papers; they also need to know how to do research before entering college. The College and Work Readiness Assessment referenced by Wagner recognizes the need to maneuver in an Information Age and includes this ability in the assessment.

It's distressing that the QEC report just released by the committee tasked to define the implementation of the Education Reform bill passed by the Washington State Legislature last session did not recognize the impact on student achievement that school librarians have and relegated implementation of teacher librarians to 2018. This does not make sense in our global information age society.

Anyway, thank you to Mr. Wagner for recognizing and giving importance to the critical skill of accessing and analyzing information!

Posted by: WashingtonMom1 | December 18, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to hear more from speakuplouder on his thoughts on the national student clearinghouse data. I am going to write about it soon, and would like to hear of the flaws detected in what they were offering. I thought that it might be a way to find surprises, schools that had lots of kids going to college and succeeding despite not having many affluent parents. But you can't tell that obviously from just one school. I can see how what they offer is not of much use internally if a school is already doing well.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 18, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

I just find the whole conversation a tad absurd. The kids who are actually ready for the academic demands of a real college degree (say 10-20%) can take either AP or IB without much difference. I think IB is absurdly political and, as a tutor who has helped students through some of their written essays, the so-called "value" of their research papers is a joke. They're not learning opportunities, they're jump through fifty hoops nonsense. The kids aren't learning, they're sighing in resignation at the crap their teachers make them go through. And frankly, the idea that a research paper is the real gold standard for high school education is a joke.

But none of this is the real issue, because we are educating our top kids just fine. And the middle range kids that we aren't educating well do not need IB classes and more research paperss, but rather a slightly more rigorous curriculum that is taught at the speed they need (slower than top ranked kids, but not at the bone head level).

And of course, our weakest students shouldn't be even considered for AP and IB. Rather, we should give them concrete skills in math, reading, and writing and stop pretending that sending children who can't read and write to college is doing anything other than devaluing college.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 19, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I'm not thoroughly familiar with the IB program, but neither do I have a dog in any IB-AP food fight. I'm a knowledgeable, yet outside observer. However, there are a couple of things that I really like about the IB program and for a small percentage of dedicated students it should be offered alongside AP courses.

I like the fact that it is an "all in" program - hoops and hurdles included. It's a package deal that forces the willing student to take ALL the hard courses and not cherry pick as most students do re AP courses. Second, IB requires a major research paper which I KNOW has a major teaching benefit for HS seniors.

Do I care if AP and IB and other teachers might have status/envy problems? Nope. (I don't even know if this is true or not.) Do IB students struggle to participate in extracurricular activities? Probably yes, but that's why there are week-ends. Use them to catch up or get ahead on academics. You think you're going to have every week-end free in a rigorous college program?

What if only maybe 10% of students can handle an IB program? Fine by me. It gives an important segment of students an academic program in which to excel and "strut their stuff" so to speak. That sort of attitude should be encouraged among all students.

In a HS with 2,000 students 10% IB participation is roughly 200 students or about 50 students per grade. That's about two sections per grade. This is clearly workable for about any HS. For the 90% of students who don't opt into IB, let there be plenty of AP courses and other honors classes. Give everyone an opportunity to excel within their capabilities and willingness to do hard things.

Encourage students to do hard things. Don't keep thinking of ways for them to do the minimum to get by.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | December 19, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Interesting that they would identify a UN backed political indoctrination program as one that requires students to think. Check the IB Geography syllabus for 2010. You will find it at the IB web site. You will find the UN goals within the curriculum. The UN is a leftist political organization and the IB is the curriculum to carry out the UN agenda.

IB also uses a Constructivist method within the classroom.

If you also search you will find that IB carries out a "peace education" within the curriculum. This agenda comes directly from UNESCO and you can again easily find that on the web.

So if you want your child to be indoctrinated to a UN leftist ideology, this is the program for them.

If you want your child educated, I'd stick with AP

Posted by: MOMwithAbrain | December 19, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Re the IB curriculum, a quick visit to the IB website indicates that either a business and management course or an economics course can be substituted for the geography course. Economics would be a good choice for HS students (as would personal fiance).

Geography should be taught at the elementary level. It need not have any connection to the UN.

Invoking some tenuous connection with the UN isn't a cogent reason to avoid the IB program.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | December 19, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I don't like that IB and AP have a cornered market on the college level high school curriculum, since they are both essentially liberal arts curricula. Why no love for something like Project Lead the Way?

Posted by: someguy100 | December 19, 2009 10:16 PM | Report abuse

IB and AP are only "liberal arts cirricula" if one looks for ways to avoid physics, chemistry, trigonometry, calculus, etc. That's much of the problem with HS students these days. They can and do avoid hard science and math courses.

You can lead a horse to water....

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | December 20, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Have you noticed a mismatch between the title of Jay's post, and the focus of the comments? As I clicked on the link to this page, I looked forward to reading about the 21C skills dialog, only to feel like a I'd been the recipient of a bait-and-switch.

Or is the comparison of AP vs. IB supposed to shed light upon the teaching and learning of 21C skills? It seemed more like Matthew's doing his best to be a spokesperson for the College Board.

Interestingly, as a former AP teacher, I can tie the two threads together. AP standards proposed in many of the subjects typically push a teacher to cover as much as possible, without a lot of depth. And because of that, the likelihood of students in an AP Calculus class, or an AP Physics getting to do things like build their public speaking ability by orally defending their findings to scientists tends to be low. Nor do a lot of students get the opportunity to engage in the critical thinking required to actually design an experiment, as opposed to following a recipe laboratory exercise. And they are rarely confronted with any kind of long-term group work that would require them to negotiate a working contract with their peers, thusly building their collaboration skills.

The frustrating thing about the debate regarding 21C skills is that many folks who decry this "new fad" have already heard how teachers are fostering those skills successfully without a loss of content. Teachers are doing so by changing their pedagogy from a didactic approach to a project-based approach. Students working in collaborative teams on complex problems end up getting the content as well as those 21C skills.

Here is an example. I taught AP Physics for 10 years, feeling the pressure to remain didactic because of the standards. When I finally taught the class project-based, I got some great results. I'll mention two.
1) The average of students' scores were the same as the previous year.
2) This is what one of my students who did an internship at a gov't lab the following summer wrote to me about his final presentation for his work over the summer: "I'm just bragging but mine received more applause than any other. I had a lot of presentation practice in your class." His presentation was to scientists, and our senator.

This student, btw, received a 4 on the physics exam, which is the same score that he got on the Calc exam. His Calc class was taught very traditionally.

All this to say: it is entirely possible to teach BOTH content and 21C skills in the same class.

Posted by: feldspar | December 22, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

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