Luther Spoehr, Review of Ronald A. Wolk's "Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It" (ASCD, 2011).



[Luther Spoehr, a senior lecturer at Brown University, teaches about the history of American school reform.]

           Ronald Wolk, who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in Rhode Island, earned a distinguished reputation as an education journalist.  As founder and first editor of Education Week, he established a high standard for thorough, professional coverage of the national school reform debate that was kicked into high gear by the “Nation at Risk” report (1983) and then into overdrive with No Child Left Behind (2002).  He now chairs Big Picture Learning, the parent organization of  “The Met” school in Providence, and, not surprisingly, shares the ideas of its founder, Dennis Littky.

            Surveying the current national education scene, Wolk is not optimistic:  “The conventional school is obsolete,” he says,  “and may very well be beyond repair.”  Although he “once believed that education research would lead us to the promised land of successful schools and high student achievement,” he no longer does (even though he then goes on to cite study after study).

            The book’s first half targets “false assumptions” driving much of contemporary reform.  I found much that was persuasive (for instance, I agree that NCLB relies too much on testing and has counter-productively narrowed the curriculum), much to disagree with (he asserts that a core curriculum is inevitably inflexible and unappealing), and much that is muddled (on the one hand, he says it is “neither fair nor true” to charge that many teachers are lazy or incompetent; on the other, until the teaching profession attracts stronger candidates and prepares them better, “we cannot reasonably expect to get the teachers our students need and deserve”).

            Moving on to his own vision, Wolk calls for establishing more “personalized” schools, where students plan their own courses of study, teachers are more “advisors” than “instructors,” and standardized tests are replaced by “authentic assessments” requiring “real accomplishments,” such as “portfolios, exhibitions, special projects…experiments, recitals, and performances.”  Schools, in other words, like his vision of The Met.

            One can find things to agree with here, too.  But Wolk’s own assumptions about student motivation, curriculum, and assessment are not unassailable.  And he leaves unexplored the middle ground between his own position and NCLB’s drill-them-and-test-them approach.  In short, Wolk’s book, long on passion and citations, doesn’t really move the education conversation forward.

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