As part of my summer routine, I will be finishing up several education-related books and starting a few more. I plan to use this space to quasi-review several of the books. Let's begin with Wasting Minds: Why our Educational System is Failing and What We Can Do About It by Ronald A. Wolk.
Wolk is the former editor of Education Week and Teacher Magazine, so many of the schools and educators he quotes come from these sources. The book is framed around " flawed assumptions" about education followed by "parallel strategies." Think of this as the author's way of telling the reader what's wrong with education in the first half of the book with solutions in the second half. From the preface:
"The old cliche is that pessimists see the glass half empty and optimists see the glass half full. I am neither. Regarding public education, I am an idealist: I see the glass as it is and can't accept the fact that it is not full" (6).
I often look back at my own notes to re-visit the main points of a book through quotes. Here is an abridged version of my notes from this book:
On the problem of education,
"The issues are so complex and controversial that people find it more expedient to accept most of the system as a given and pursue reforms that are incremental and marginal" (11).Regarding the author's approach to education reform,
"Lacking reliable research findings, much of what I argue is based on personal observations, logic and common sense" (13)On educational standards,
"To insist that all students be treated the same way, that they all study the same subject at the same tme in the same way, is a strategy that denies reality" (25).and
"Student motivation is probably the most important prerequisite to learning and school success. Standards don't motivate students" (34).Wolk takes on the idea of all 8th graders enrolling in algebra,
"Students who reach the 8th grade ready for algebra and higher-order math should be encouraged (not required) to take it, and, I suspect, many of them would. But some won't because they have neither and interest in math nor a talent for it. These students may do well enough to pass their courses, but they are not likely to excel or remember much of what was taught...There is no guarantee that simply taking courses in any subject, including higher-order math, will increase a student's thinking skills" (48-50).On effective principals,
"Anyone who shadows the principal of a large urban high school for a day soon discovers that the 'principal instructional leader' (like teachers) lives in real time, with little opportunity for planning or reflection and almost no time for instruction or collaboration with colleagues" (71).and
"As in the preparation of teachers, aspiring principals have too little clinical experience. Most principals are former teachers, but few of them have a genuine understanding of the principal's job" (73).Wolk has opinions about grading!
"I have always been somewhat mystified that parents would rather have their child's performance expressed in an A or a C than in a written evaluation of the student's work and behavior" (137).The bottom line
Giving students and teachers more choice through options such as, but not limited to, charter schools is a start. With a bit of a capitalistic twist, the author questions,
"Why should schools be held harmless if students leave a district school for one that they believe better meets their needs? States don't hold urban schools harmless when their students migrate to the suburbs" (164)Wolk admits this is challenging work in the conclusion,
Perhaps the most discouraging lesson I've learned in more than 30 years studying K-12 education is that the vast majority of the public, parents, and opinion leaders accept most of the existing system as a given...They cannot imagine schools that are much different from the ones they attended" (175).I'm not left believing this book is intended to be read by practicing educators alone, but instead by all stakeholders. It's one of those we all need to be in this together type of books that could easily be pushed aside as a dreamy keynote speaker at an education conference. If you're looking for a pragmatic book to jump start your school year, this isn't it. If you're looking for a conversation starter at Grandma's 90th birthday party this summer, this might be the one for you.
Full disclosure: A big thanks goes out to Laura Berry, former ASCD Communications Specialist, for sending me a complementary copy of this book. I have not received any compensation to write this review and did not receive the book under any obligation to write this post.