Wagner, Tony. (2002). Making the grade: Reinventing America's schools. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Pp. 164
$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 the book.

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 technology skills.

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 reviewers.

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 standardized tests.

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 commitment.

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 leaders.

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 politics.

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 developed.

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 collaborative inquiry.
  • 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 partnership.

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 ownership.

Conclusion

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, 2003).

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 credulity.

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 workplaces.

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 insanity.

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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