Wagner, Tony. (2002). Making the grade: Reinventing
America's schools. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
$16.95 (paper) ISBN 0-415-92762-5
Reviewed by Dick Carpenter
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
June 2, 2004
With Making the Grade, Tony Wagner contributes another
work in a series of his publications calling for the reformation
of schools in the United States (Wagner, 1993; 1996a; 1997; 1998;
1999; 2001a; 2001c). Like others on Wagner’s vita (2001b),
this offering analyzes education’s ills, describes the
“new” world in which children live and will live as
adults, outlines what they will need to know to succeed in said
environment, and prescribes his remedy for the reinvention (he
resists the term “reform”) of American education.
Readers of leadership literature (e.g. Evans, 1996; Heifetz,
1994; Schussler, 2003; Senge, 1990; Sergiovanni, 1992), school
reform research (e.g. Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Datnow &
Castellano, 2001; Desimone, 2002; Shipps, 2003; 2001; C. N.
Stone, 1998; Wohlstetter, Malloy, Chau, & Polhemus, 2003),
and/or particularly Wagner’s earlier works will tread on no
new ground here. Rather, Wagner distills the conclusions of other
authors (Cotter, 2002; Goleman, 1995; Meier, 2002; Murnane &
Levy, 1996; Stigler & Hiebert, 1999) and repackages many of
his prior practitioner oriented articles (1993; 1995a; 1995b;
1996a; 1997; 1998) in crafting his vision for “new village
schools” (1997; 1999). Targeted more for practicing school
leaders and teachers, researchers may yearn for more data to
“chew on” in this book. Moreover, its target audience
will likely find the book long on improbabilities. However, in
the world of ideas, Wagner asks some important questions and
challenges the status quo on both the right and the left ends of
the edu-political spectrum.
Framing the Issue
Wagner begins his plan for reinvention by building a case for
its necessity. He observes:
For while there is agreement on the basic goal of raising
the achievement of all students, most people are confused about
what’s really wrong with our schools, why large numbers of
students seem to be doing so poorly, and what it will take to
solve the problem. (p. 1)
In diagnosing “what’s really wrong with our
schools,” he practices the art of framing (Schön,
1979; 1994). According to Schön (1979, p. 268), “the
ways in which we set [or frame] social policy problems determines
both the kinds of purposes and values we seek to realize, and the
directions in which we see solutions.” In that effort,
Wagner briefly recounts and rejects the now familiar
“schools are failing” verdict. “Rather,”
he concludes, “the American system of education has become
obsolete” (p. 9).
To illustrate this framing of the issue, Wagner devotes the
entire first chapter to describing how “a changing world is
shaping today’s young people and their future” (p.
15). He defines change in four categories: work, learning,
citizenship, and motivation for learning. For anyone moderately
well-read in neo-liberal thought and education (Fowler, 1995),
his description of the “new” state of affairs comes
as no surprise:
- Work—“we need more highly skilled workers in a
highly competitive global economy” (p. 18).
- Learning—constructivism, in which “the
learner…is driven to discover by an intrinsic need to make
sense of the world” (p. 21).
- Citizenship—“A democracy requires a population
that both understands the issues and votes” (p. 24).
- Motivation for learning—“For many young people
today, neither [respect for authority nor desire to succeed] have
the power that they once had” (p. 30).
Student and School Accountability
Framing the current education system as obsolete in a changing
world, Wagner begins outlining his remedy with a look at
outcomes, that is, what students need to know. For Wagner, the
current state of affairs “has gotten us into serious
trouble” (p. 37). Through reliance on technocracy and the
oversight of political ideologues, student outcomes evolved into
long lists of seemingly irrelevant and disconnected standards and
recall-level standardized tests. The latter particularly offends
Wagner, as evidenced by his repeated pillories of them throughout
Instead, Wagner redefines intellectual rigor as
competencies rather than the current emphasis on coverage.
“In an age of instant access and information overload,
mastery of real skills is much more important than
memorization” (p. 44). Citing National Urban League
president Hugh Price and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,
for whom he serves as a senior advisor, Wagner advocates
“six clusters of competence” all high school students
must master: English literacy, mathematical competence, problem
solving, scientific literacy, good citizenship, and advanced
His vision of student and school accountability
encompasses these clusters. Rather than standardized tests,
Wagner calls for the use of portfolios as a more authentic
measure of performance based competencies. He holds up Central
Park East Secondary School and the work of the Coalition of
Essential Schools as a model in this practice. Indeed, Central
Park East, the Coalition, Deborah Meier, and Ted Sizer loom large
throughout Wagner’s work.
Of course, portfolios are not new ideas, even
though Wagner appears to portray them as such (“Students
document their work in what the school calls
‘portfolios’” [p. 63]), and since their
introduction critics have questioned their reliability and
efficiency (Griffee, 2002; Shapley & Bush, 1999). In
addressing the first, Wagner advocates the use of an auditing
system in which learned individuals from outside the school
review and assess student portfolios.
However, the second criticism, efficiency, remains
largely unanswered. Wagner acknowledges the superior cost and
time efficiency of standardized tests, but fails to provide a
compelling commiserate argument for portfolios, particularly in
the minds of those who have direct experience with them. Even in
the decentralized school model he proposes, reliably reviewing
the portfolios of all the graduating seniors in a given
year is a Herculean task, especially when using outside
For Wagner, Meier, et al. performance-based
competencies and portfolios also play a central role in school
wide accountability and the creation of learning communities.
Wagner clearly states his agreement on the need for
accountability but disagrees with current systems that emphasize
multitudinous and divergent standards and the requisite bevy of
Instead, he proposes an accountability system in
which “licensed” public school operators adhere to
their chosen set of “licensed” standards and are
evaluated via multiple forms of assessment, which include the
aforementioned performance-based portfolios and a national
literacy and numeracy test (essentially a redesigned NAEP).
“Licensed” standards would differ from current
practice in that “[r]ather than being in the business of
creating and administering academic standards and accompanying
tests…states [would] license multiple academic standards
providers” (p. 80). These providers would create different
“licensed” academic content standards and
accompanying curricula and assessments.
While intriguing in theory, it seems fraught with
practical impediments. For example, at some point in the
licensing process a decision-maker at the state level will have
to declare a set of standards worthy based on some set of
criteria, in other words, standards. Likely, these latter
criteria will be developed by some committee composed of
bureaucrats, politicians, and technocrats—the people Wagner
explicitly seeks to excise from the educational process. For
those attuned to educational politics, wresting away control over
standards and excluding politicians and bureaucrats from major
portions of the process remain highly improbable.
However, the other “licensed” part of
Wagner’s accountability process is more than probable, it
is reality. Although he demurs at a voucher system, Wagner
advocates what he calls a “’private’ public
education system” (p. 83) in which “individuals or
groups would apply for a license to run a public school. If
successful, they would be granted a contract, which would spell
out the kind of program to be provided, budgets, evaluation
criteria, and so on” (p.78).
He is, of course, describing charter schools,
which he has advocated for a decade. In earlier articles, Wagner
(1994; 1996b) saw charter schools as a way to dismantle
bureaucracy and spur educational innovation. In this book, he
believes choice, in the form of charters, plays a critical role
in implementing his accountability system, meeting different
student needs, and creating learning communities.
"New Village Schools"
The latter garners particular attention in this
book. Repeatedly Wagner makes clear his disdain for politicians
and bureaucrats "who don't even have an elementary understanding
of the education problems we face" (p. 121). His solution is to
decentralize the current system into thousands of charter schools
managed by communities of teachers, parents, business leaders,
and other interested parties. These learning communities would
make the important decisions about curricula, discipline,
assessment, and outcomes, and as a result students and teachers
would not perform out of compliance but flourish due to
If present charter schools fulfilled all these
expectations, convincing the public, bureaucrats, politicians,
and teachers unions of the necessity to change might be a little
easier. However, thus far research on charter performance remains
mixed. While some conclude charter schools lead to greater
student achievement than traditional public schools (Greene,
Forster, & Winters, 2003)or incubate much needed educational
innovation (Finn, Manno, & Vanourek, 2000), others find quite
the opposite (Good & Braden, 2000; Paglin, 2001).
Additionally, Wagner acknowledges two possible
pitfalls of choice: inequality of educational opportunity and
greater racial and religious separatism. While he recognizes the
first, he provides no remedy. Indeed, on its face a choice system
of education seems incongruent with equal opportunity. If schools
can choose their own standards from among those
“licensed” by the state and implement the curriculum
of their choosing, inequalities are inevitable.
However, it is in the free market theory Wagner
seems reluctant to embrace that possible answers lie. As the
theory goes, offerings in fact will not be the same in a system
of choice, but neither are the needs and desires the same from
family to family or child to child. Returning to Schön
(1994), Wagner’s dissonance about choice may lie in how he
frames equal opportunity: (a) Everyone has access to the same
offering, or (b) everyone has the same opportunity to choose from
among different offerings.
If Wagner remains unsettled about the first
pitfall, no such worry persists on the second. In fact, he
asserts just the opposite would transpire. That is, with greater
choice would come greater collaboration and community. To support
this assertion he cites his own experience as a classroom teacher
encouraging student individuality in class assignments. In so
doing, “Students were more ready to appreciate one another
and to work together…” (p. 118).
On its face, such logic appears to typify the
fallacy of representativeness in which errant judgments about a
whole are made from its parts (Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky,
1982). Yet, demographic research on charter schools supports
Wagner’s claim. Despite fears of “creaming,”
greater segregation, and the like, charter schools are serving
populations at least as diverse as traditional public schools, if
not more so (Cobb, Glass, & Crockett, 2000; Lacireno-Paquet,
Holyoke, Moser, & Henig, 2002; Weiher & Tedin, 2002).
The Role of Leaders
Wagner ends his treatise with a look at "what
leaders must do" (p. 121), specifically politicians, those in the
business world, and educational leaders. As is clear from prior
discussions, Wagner's role for politicians in his new educational
order would be minimal. They would eliminate high stakes
standardized testing, adopt the recommendations laid out in this
book (specifically greater flexibility and autonomy for schools),
and include educators in decision making just as they do business
The latter particularly irks Wagner:
"…[Politicians] are trying to unilaterally impose solutions
on educators. They would never treat business leaders and their
problems that way. They would discuss the issues and problem
solve together. Why should educators be treated as second-class
citizens?" (p. 121). One can only assume Wagner poses the
question as a vehicle to spur his readers into some state of
moral outrage rather than asking out of a genuine naivete about
For even to a mildly interested observer of
politics the answer to the question is plain: educators
are second class citizens. Politicians, like everyone
else, act out of self-interest. They respond to constituents
under the pressure of re-election. The reason for the difference
in how they treat business and education stems from the power
business people hold in the form of money, a relatively scarce
commodity among educators. The exceptions, of course, are the
teachers' unions, but the agendas of teachers' unions share
little in common with Wagner's reinvention plans.
Wagner's role for business leaders appears only
slightly more involved than for politicians. Like the latter,
business leaders need to meet and dialogue with educators rather
than posturing as if "they have all the answers" (p. 125), and
they need to "promote better standards and assessments" (p. 126),
specifically those performance-based in nature. However, unlike
politicians, Wagner sees a direct role for business leaders in
re-inventing education--developing human capital in schools.
Given the social changes Wagner references earlier, he sees
business leaders uniquely situated to teach educators the value
and processes of working in teams, leading meetings, aligning
curricula with the real world, and the like.
As important as this may be, however, educational
leaders, rather than politicians and business people, play the
major change agent roles in Wagner's reinvention plan. To create
the changes he advocates, educational leaders must stimulate
first-tier rather than second-tier change.
"Second-tier change efforts attempt to teach people new or
improved skills without altering--or even discussing--the
organizational culture of the school or district" (p. 130). On
the other hand, "First-tier change means moving from a
bureaucratic school to a knowledge-generating culture" (p. 131).
Wagner defines a knowledge-generating culture as one in which
relationships are highly collaborative and collegial,
responsibility is shared, accountability is face-to-face and
commitment-driven, and expertise is collaboratively
For readers of leadership literature, Wagner's description of
a knowledge-based culture strikes a familiar tone. Such ideas
have been "in the mix" for several decades (e.g. Avery, 1999;
Avolio & Bass, 1999; Bass & Avolio, 1993; Bennis, 1982;
Burns, 1978; Chrislip & Larson, 1994; Giroux, 1991, 1992;
Green, 1994; Kanter, 1983), and it could be argued that Follett
beat them all to the punch as far back as the 1920s (Graham,
1995). Yet, schools continue to function as they have for a
hundred years, including many if not most charter schools. Thus,
one wonders (a) if widespread adoption of such recommendations
would ever occur and (b) if Wagner's "new village school" model
is sufficiently "re-inventionist" to spur such change.
Perhaps anticipating such questions, Wagner
introduces three change-resistance traits he believes
"characterize many in our profession" (p. 132): risk aversion,
autonomy and isolation, and craft expertise. The latter he
defines as the tendency to develop such expertise in the craft of
teaching that one resists change or even the suggestion of it. To
overcome such resistance, Wagner introduces his framework for
change, which he describes as "'constructivist' adult learning"
(p. 135). The three components of this framework incorporate many
of the facets he describes earlier in the book, including:
- Understanding the contemporary context of education and
creating a shared vision for what students should know.
- Creating a knowledge generating culture based on
- Changing the conditions of teaching and learning and
developing the competencies of educators.
However, perhaps Wagner's strongest recommendation for change,
spurring reinvention, and creating authentic learning communities
is his call to transform community engagement from "PR" to
An overriding preoccupation of education leaders today is
how to get what they routinely call 'buy in' from teachers,
parents, and community members. They know they need political and
financial support for their school improvement plan or district
change strategy in order to succeed, and so many are looking for
a better public relations plan--one that will guarantee buy-in
from all the “stakeholders.” (p. 147)
Instead, Wagner stresses the importance of listening to the
public and creating dialogue. He asserts,
This sustained engagement process creates real
“ownership” of both the problems and the solutions.
For this process to be successful, education leaders have to give
up two common misconceptions; first, the belief that they are the
experts with all the answers; and second, the idea that all they
need from the public to be successful is more political and
financial support--more time and money. (p. 147)
Indeed, ownership involves decision making over the important
aspects of an endeavor. Wagner's inclusion of the community in
developing student outcomes, assessing student work, and
evaluating school quality fulfills such an understanding of
Yet, for the pragmatic reader, particularly one
that has worked in schools or does so currently, nagging doubts
persist concerning Wagner's "new village school" model. The most
striking concerns the widespread probability of the type of
significant change he addresses herein. Certainly the specific
changes Wagner recommends are possible, as he demonstrates with
short case studies, but replicating it on a national scale defies
probability, which is a typical dilemma in school reform (Shipps,
Moreover, Wagner's model and recommendations
depend heavily on "the angels of our better nature." In other
words, Wagner's system assumes the numerous participants in each
learning community, in the special interest groups surrounding
each community, and in the political and bureaucratic sectors
will largely forgo self or group interest to achieve a school's
desired goals. This assumption, too, defies probability, if not
As Shipps (2003) demonstrates, the different groups in reform
coalitions each approach change with divergent agendas. Moreover,
the groups prove remarkably difficult to harness and mobilize:
parents often lack the resources and political and social capital
to affect change; business leaders find school reform unfamiliar
and unappealing; politicians rarely forfeit power over decision
making; and educators resist substantive changes to their
However, if Wagner's "new village school" idea at
times approaches educational utopianism, at least he is willing
to broach important and difficult questions about the alignment
of current practices and contemporary contexts, the needs of
students versus the self-perpetuation of systems and
bureaucracies, and the authentic inclusion of community rather
than the current attempts at "buy-in." Until more people begin
asking such questions and challenging the status quo, we will
naively expect something different by doing the same thing--only
"better," which too closely resembles the layman's definition of
Given how much interest politicians, bureaucrats, special
interest groups, colleges of education, and teachers' unions have
in maintaining the current system (Shipps, 2003; Zhao &
Frank, 2003), fundamental changes akin to Wagner's remain
unlikely. Furthermore, "whether a condition is a…problem
hinges, by definition, on whether a sizable part of the public
accepts it as one" (Edelman, 1988, p. 32). Considering the
approval rating parents give to their children's schools (Rose
& Gallup, 2003), we are also unlikely to hear a critical mass
of the public clamoring for wholesale change. It is little
wonder, then, why Wagner concludes his acknowledgments, "…I
did not merely want to write this book. I had to" (p. xxii).
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About the Reviewer
Dick Carpenter is an Assistant Professor of educational
leadership at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. His
diverse background includes experience as a public school
teacher, an administrator, and a public policy analyst for a
national non-profit organization. His research focuses on
educational policy, leadership, communications, school reform,
and the U.S. Presidency.
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