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 http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle
For all the Post's Education coverage, please see http://washingtonpost.com/education
| 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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