Are American students still the most likely to succeed? New book raises concerns.

A few years ago, I attended a student-led curriculum night in which the teacher in front of the room was replaced by students demonstrating what they were learning.

Parents sat through disorganized student skits where kids hissed at each other for forgetting their lines. Students showed their social studies essays on a PowerPoint, replete with misspellings, grammatical errors and missing punctuation, causing parents to cringe.

That evening came to mind as I read the new book, "Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era, " by Harvard educator  Tony Wagner and venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith .

As with Wagner’s 2008 best-seller, “The Global Achievement Gap,” the new book deems American schools unequal to the task of training innovators, inventors and trailblazers for a 21st century where the only constant is change.

The book calls for an education system that doesn’t drill kids, but excites them; that doesn’t tell them the answers, but puts them on a journey of self discovery. The authors champion more wonder and initiative and less grind and rote learning. Wagner and Dintersmith assail the time devoted to the mechanics of writing “without giving students any reason whatsoever to write.”

Education reformer Ted DIntersmith wants more high schools to adopt the project-based approach of the vaulted High Tech High in San Diego.
Education reformer Ted DIntersmith wants more high schools to adopt the project-based approach of the vaulted High Tech High in San Diego.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

But as my open house experience demonstrated, a failure to grasp the mechanics can undermine what a student is trying to say. I hate grind and rote memorization. But that’s how I slogged through grammar, spelling and math. A top mathematician once told me math is not fun; it’s hard even for those who love it and make it their life work.

The answer is providing balance — grounding kids in the basics without stifling their drive to create, invent and innovate. No one would disagree students prefer hands-on lessons to lectures. Or that the U.S. relies on tests to determine what students have learned without knowing if what they’ve learned matters. Most teachers would applaud the book’s contention education today is “a largely hollow process of temporarily retaining the information required to get acceptable grades on tests.”

In a supporting anecdote, the authors cite an elite New Jersey prep school that gave students returning after summer break a simplified version of the final science exam they’d taken three months earlier. While the average grade in June had been an 87, it was a 58 in September. This caused the school to narrow its science curriculum to critical concepts and build in more self-discovery.

(A dissenting voice: A friend who trains managers on new computer programs for a major Atlanta corporation said it is not surprising students scored lower. "You're better at something when you practice it. If the school had given the kids a week to review the science, the scores would have been higher.")

Most current reform models fail to impress the authors. Charter schools are declared no better than other public schools. About MOOCs, the massive open online courses attracting thousands of users, they write, "Kids who learn little from lectures in the classroom can learn just as little watching online lectures from their rooms." While Common Core may require students to tackle more difficult content, the authors doubt the content will interest students. And AP courses, suffering from the tinkering of too many academic committees, are now 10 miles wide and 1/100 of an inch deep, according to the pair.

So what does hold promise? Wagner and Dintersmith cite individual schools, including the much-celebrated High Tech High network of schools in San Diego, the Riverdale Country School in New York and Malcolm X Shabazz High in Newark, which feature interdisciplinary courses, internships, a focus on content mastery, presentation and communication, and projects and portfolio over tests.

Such innovative programs offer an end to the educational treadmill, say the authors, in which schools are forced to do more and more “without identifying what to do less of. … We take every ounce of bold creativity out of the classroom, replacing it with a soulless march through dull curriculum and test prep decoupled from life skills. We prioritize standardization and accountability and don’t seem to notice or care that students lack engagement and purpose. We rob our kids of their futures.”


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