A sweeping if muddled plan to reshape the nation’s educational system—beginning with the community, not the classroom.
A veteran of 30 years in the education system, Wagner (How Schools Change, not reviewed) is now co-director of a leadership group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a senior advisor on education to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Here, he decries the call for “reform” that has politicians, business leaders, and even educators in a scramble to standardize testing, tinker with curricula, and micro-manage teachers in the classroom, among other stopgap measures. In the past hundred years, the world has changed radically, Wagner says, but America’s educational system hasn’t really been modified at all. Educators, politicians, parents, business leaders, and students must set aside their special interests and in “civil discourse” at the local level set new goals for schools tied to the information age, not the industrial revolution. Wagner is all over the lot—perhaps rightly so—in discussing such widespread social problems as lack of motivation, lack of commitment, fear and cynicism about change, plus the isolation of children from adults and the isolation of teachers from each other. As a prime example of a school that solved many of these problems, we once again have the Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, the darling of visionary educators. CPESS used what Wagner dubs approvingly the “merit badge” approach to education, that is, students were required to prove their proficiencies in subjects by doing, not testing. Wagner’s most valuable contribution here is reporting on his own work with communities whose school systems were in disarray and how, through forums and focus groups, common goals were established and successfully implemented on the local level, creating what he calls the “New Village School.”
In many ways, a laudable template for restructuring education, but unlikely to have much impact.