Wasting Minds Ronald A. Wolk

Wolk, R. A. (2011). Wasting minds: why our education system is failing and what we can do about it. Alexandria, VA, USA: ASCD.


  • Ronald A. Wolk
  • Two overriding questions about education:
  • Can we get the schools we need simply by improving the ones we have?
  • How do we get from the schools we have to the schools we need?
  • Radical thinking and action are required to save education
  • many believe the system is sound and only needs patched up, when more radical actions need to be done
  • Blaming poor student performance on teacher laziness is avoiding the real problem
  • Students are failing to get the education the education they need to succeed because many of them are weighed down by the baggage of poverty and broken homes.
  • Standards don't educate kids, or improve teaching
  • We will make real progress when we realize our problem in education is not one of performance, but one of design.
  • Common standards may work at the elementary level, because to be successful adults, you need the skills to read, write, listen, speak, mathematics and be introduced to the world around them
  • At higher levels starting with middle school, common standards of what every student should know and rigorous curricula are incompatible with the needs and interests of a diverse student body

Influence of College Admission Requirement

  • The main purpose of schools should be to help students prepare to be successful and productive adults and lifelong learners
  • To develop good habits of mind and behavior
  • to learn to reason, to gather information, organize it logically, evaluate it, and use it effectively
  • Students deserve better than to be force-fed the one-size-fits-all education of the conventional school
  • Students motivation is probably the most important prerequisite to learning and school success, standards don't motivate students
  • conventional schools do more to stifle motivation than to foster it

If it Moves, Test it

  • Students pass tests but are inept at ordinary school tasks
  • teachers claim that they routinely see students who can pass state tests but cannot apply what they "learned" to anything that is not in a test format
  • American schools are producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else
  • Colleges complain about poor preparation of entering students, who not only had meager knowledge of the world but still required remediation in basic skills

Complicating Factors

  • The correlation between low scores on standardized tests and socioeconomic and cultural background is well established and remains valid today

What We Don't Test

  • Standardized tests fail to assess nonacademic traits that parents value and expect their children to get from 12 years in school
  • such as: people skills, ability to analyze and evaluate information, understand moral implications of their behavior, and to be "well rounded"
  • tests can't measure initiative, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgement, commitment, nuance, goodwill, ethical reflection, and many others
  • Many teachers complain that they have very little time to devote to many academic or nonacademic matters becasue they have to prepare students for tests
  • by teaching to the test, teachers must turn education into a game of Trivial Pursuit

The Myth of Objectivity

  • Advocates of standardized testing argue that scores provide the only objective data available to monitor student progress
  • because the test are scored by a machine they are "objective", when in fact they are inevitably subjective because humans, not machines, choose the questions
  • many times, students think that the test questions are written in a way to trick them. Concluding to many that the testing is more of a game than a genuine effort to determine how well they have learned

Make Them Take Algebra

  • Why should everyone be required to study higher-order math? The reason most often given is that the United States is not producing enough scientists and engineers to compete in a global economy
  • Students that reach the 8th grade ready for algebra and higher-order math should be encouraged to take it not forced
  • Many of the lowest-preforming students required to take 8th grade algebra are as are as six grades below grade level in math

What Do Employers Want?

  • When asking employers, they contended that creating courses that place a greater emphasis on real-world or "applied" math, as opposed to simply increasing academic requirements, could improve not only students' workforce skills but also their enthusiasm for that subject
  • If public schools work as they should. every student would be proficient in math by the 8th grade and many would eagerly study algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus

Wanted: Great Teachers

  • Putting a highly qualified teacher in each classroom would increase student learning and success but it isnt possible
  • As in any endeavor this big, individuals will be distributed across a spectrum of quality- from a relative handful who are so bad they shouldn't be teaching to a relative handful who are outstanding. he great majority fall somewhere in between
  • State certification guarantees high quality teachers about as much as a driver's license guarantees a good driver

The Dance of the Lemons

  • Union contracts across the country so fiercely protect teachers that firing an incompetent teacher can take years and be very expensive
  • "Bumping rights" gives senior teachers their pick of job openings, and new teachers cannot be hired until the more senior teachers choose
  • "the dance of the lemons" principles must hire teachers from within the distict, teachers who transfer from other schools have to be hired in the school of their school of their choice at the expense of a less experienced teacher

A Problem of Supply

  • Even after they get hired, as many as half of the people who enter the field leave within five years
  • Although we refer to teaching as a profession, not much about the job is professional
  • Teachers have little to say about their working conditions except for the work rules in their union contracts. They don't decide what students should be taught, almost no influence on educational policy
  • Salary: teachers are responsible for educating our children, a service to society at least as important as that of any profession, but they do not earn comparable salaries
  • but to simply raise salaries across the board on the assumption that this will improve teaching is comparable to assuming that if we pay pilots more, flying will be safer

Preparing Teachers for Yesterday

  • schools of education prepare teachers to teach subjects rather than students
  • most teacher education programs are still preparing students for schools as they were nearly a century ago

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