COHS teacher discussion: “The Global Achievement Gap”

global achievement   Although this entry deals with significant ways in which education will change—and thus affect students’ lives—it’s written for teachers. Our principal has asked that we teachers read and discuss this book. (He bought 20 copies, and these can be checked out at our school textbook room.) Here’s what I found in the first sections.

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 (2008)

by Tony Wagner

Preface, Introduction, and Chapter 1


Wagner sets up his credentials for writing such a book—many years as teacher, school administrator,  a doctorate in education at Harvard, educational consultant, work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and more.

As he does research for his doctorate, Wagner sees that teachers are being asked to try new educational methodology without understanding why. As a result they don’t try hard at reforms, and they know that reforms won’t last–others will be along in a few years. The problem is that there’s urgency for change and teachers don’t get it. What they do get is that there’s too much testing in schools and that NCLB has done more harm than good.

Wagner’s research shows that there’s no evidence that charter schools or vouchers will fix problems or that teachers’ unions make them worse. Still, business leaders jump to these as problems/solutions out of desperation.

What’s to be desperate about? Our kids live in a era when they must compete with people from all over the world in a way we never had to. That’s the game changer. Yet there’s no real communication between business leaders, educators and parents about this. Students rarely use technology at school in a meaningful way (learning) and they, along with their teachers, work in isolation. The work world “had been organized into teams for decades.” (Victoria’s comment: This is interesting in light of the cartoon about team work that all district staff has been shown—the doltish student who can’t answer a single question in the job interview, and hopes to rely on her pair share and group. Yet Wagner will champion group work later in the book—provided that it is done in a way that compels critical thinking.) There’s no discussion of real world problems in the classroom (deaths in Iraq or global climate change, for example).

Questions that The Global Achievement Gap will focus on include what it means to be an active and informed citizen in a democratic society; what is meant by ‘rigor;’ and how we can get more of it into the classroom.


Wagner asks the reader to face some facts about graduation rates, lack of college preparation among high school students (and the fact that almost all jobs now require postsecondary education). There are statistics to back up claims—our kids don’t complete college, they are unprepared for work, and they don’t vote in presidential elections. (Victoria’s note; the book was published in August 2008, before the youth groundswell of voting for Obama. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, you can see that if youth are engaged, they will vote.)

We are trying to fix things by testing and teaching to the tests and that has resulted in a disaster. Schools are obsolete (as opposed to failing). We should instead be teaching kids new skills. (Victoria’s thought: This was written before the adoption of the Common Core, which does test for higher-level skills. However, the Common Core will require A LOT more testing and A LOT more expense on providing the infrastructure for that testing.)

The rest of the introduction is about creating ‘habits of mind’ in our students—effective communication, curiosity, and critical thinking. Wagner also goes back over why this is essential—the global economy and global competition for jobs. He quotes other authors who have looked at that problem. He believes we need to quickly respond to three fundamental transformations:

  • The rapid evolution of the knowledge economy
  • The shift to limitless information
  • The impact of media and technology on learning, social behavior and one’s relationship to the world.

Chapter 1: The New World of Work and the Seven Survival Skills

Wagner rubs elbows with many giants of industry and technology. He’s always asked them what qualities they would like to see in new employees. He’s always been surprised that they don’t respond with a list of specific technical skills. From this experience, he compiled a list of seven vital skills that should be taught in high school.

Before detailing the vital skills, Wagner goes into problems he sees on his many classroom observations: teaching to the test; teachers unable to agree on what a good lesson is (they have no idea of what a good lesson is); STEM students not properly trained and unable to observe.

There are in fact, two achievement gaps in our system—the one we know of in urban schools, where minority students receive inferior instruction in poorly equipped environments—and the one in middle class schools, where kids are learning neither what they need to know in a global economy nor how to be an informed citizen in a democracy. There are reasons for this and Wagner gives a short history of the educational pendulum—why it swings from teachers training kids as though they were performance monkeys to an ‘anything goes’ creativity. NCLB was to correct the wild swinging, but studies show that it’s a failure.

How do we get out of this failure cycle? Wagner gives us seven survival skills anyone needs in today’s world and that can be taught at high schools across the country:

1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving—employers demand it and there are examples in the book. There’s no middle management in business anymore, so all workers have to be able to problem-solve on their own, and sift through lots of information. So what is critical thinking, really?

  • Wagner doesn’t use the word gestalt, but the thinker has to understand the root of an issue and how parts affect the whole, what the connections are (not just what’s visible at the surface).
  • Advice to teachers: Throw out the textbooks (from a Cisco Systems VP). Surround yourself with people with whom you have a difference of opinion and who can help create the best solutions (from a military full colonel).

 2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence

  • There is a lot of ‘virtual’ collaboration today, so an issue arises with interacting and developing trust.
  • People should be able to work with others from different cultures.
  • People need to influence others rather than direct and command.
  • These skills are essential for citizenship (e. g., understand culture—Sunni v. Shiite Muslims).

3. Agility and Adaptability

  • Clay Parker (BOC Edwards): “I can guarantee that the job I hire someone to do will change or may not exist in the future.”
  • This relates to the idea of a ‘lifelong learner.’
  • People must deal with ambiguity.
  • People must know how to manage disruption (innovation, change, uncontrollable factors, etc.).

4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism

  • Companies expand rapidly and can’t succeed without keeping this sort of talent.
  • A problem with large companies is that they are risk averse. They are now trying to create entrepreneurial culture within the organization.
  • (Victoria’s thought: Teachers are risk averse; that’s why they teach when they could be making a lot more money doing something else—not because they aren’t smart, are lazy, or any other nonsense they’re accused of. But, how does a risk-averse person teach someone else not to be? Is that a personality trait?)

5. Effective Oral and Written Communication

  • Includes communicating effectively across cultures.
  • Partnership for 21st Century Skills study—80.9% high school graduates are deficient in written communication.
  • Advice from industry: Teach them to write!
  • People need not only to communicate clearly and concisely, but must be able to create focus, energy and passion.
  • Teachers have too many kids to teach anything but formulaic writing. Business leaders complain that writers show fuzzy thinking that lacks voice (which takes us back to the idea of passion, etc.).
  • (Victoria’s thought: Studies show that passionate readers are better writers/communicators. That’s why people should be encouraged to read all sorts of things. And, yes, fiction creates that passion.)

6. Accessing and Analyzing Information

  • Access and evaluate information from a variety of sources.
  • (Victoria’s thought: This is a national and state standard for school libraries! This is what librarians are supposed to help teach—and why the national standard is one librarian to every 750 or so students!)

7. Curiosity and Imagination

  • People must be disciplined thinkers, but they also must have “a burning curiosity, a lively imagination, and engage others empathetically.”
  • (Victoria’s thought: Fiction, fiction, fiction! Check out those new brain studies!)
  • Curiosity includes a desire to problem solve by looking at the entire issue (There’s a quote from Annmarie Neal and she defines curiosity in almost exactly the same words as she does critical thinking at the beginning of the chapter. I found that interesting. Either she’s not creative enough herself to delineate the difference, or she’s trying to tell us that they are pretty much the same thing.)
  • Important people are quoted. Particularly resonant is Daniel Pink and his notions of high concept and high touch—detect patterns, create beauty, craft narrative, combine seemingly unrelated things, find purpose and meaning in connecting with others.
  • People will create their job requirements around their own abilities (or—it’s implied—they’ll be sacked.)

One more note from Victoria: I’ve read and reviewed several of the books Wagner is quoting. A look at the reviews can give you an idea of how all this is connected.

Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind is here.

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is here.

Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat is here.

Last note: In the leadership meeting, a teacher expressed a concern about studies which show that the U.S. trails other countries in educational performance. He commented that this is skewed data. This is a real issue and worth looking into since these studies are highlighted in The Global Achievement Gap’s Introduction.

If you are distraught over how hard you work and how it seems others are always ahead in the race to the top, you may find solace in the following blog entry, which links to many articles on why those statistics may not be accurate.

Here’s an excerpt of a conversation with a Shanghai principal:

“Developed countries like the U.S. shouldn’t be too surprised by these results. They’re just one index, one measure that shows off the good points of Shanghai’s and China’s education system. But the results can’t cover up our problems,” he says. Liu is very frank about those problems — the continuing reliance on rote learning, the lack of analysis or critical thinking — and he says the system is in dire need of reform. “Why don’t Chinese students dare to think? Because we insist on telling them everything. We’re not getting our kids to go and find things out for themselves,” he says.

As well as the limitations of the Chinese education system, Liu says, it was only students in Shanghai who took the PISA tests, and Shanghai has some of the best schools in China.


About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
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