To the editor:
Tony Wagner responds ("'Hurricane Wagner' is no hurricane," February 19, 2009) to critics like myself by saying he really is "a strong advocate for accountability" and fully understands "the importance of academic content knowledge and cultural literacy."
But his new vision of accountability involves replacing useful and measurable knowledge with ill-defined and un-measurable skills. To say that you want to hold schools accountable for teaching students creativity and collaboration means not being able to hold them accountable at all.
Nor is his embrace of "strong academic content" convincing. It is true that on p. 261 of his book Wagner makes a nod toward "core academic subject knowledge." But a more telling passage about Wagner's thoughts on academic content can be found on p. 92. There he doubts the need to require algebra for college-bound high school students. He writes: "So-called advanced math is perhaps the clearest example of the mismatch between what is taught and tested in high school versus what's needed for college and in life. It turns out that knowledge of algebra is required to pass state tests... But why is that?"
To support his case for dropping algebra requirements he cites a "survey" of MIT graduates in which "the overwhelming majority reported using nothing more than arithmetic, statistics, and probability." That survey (see p. 9-10 in particular) consists of an interview with 17 graduates. Twelve of them explicitly mention using algebra, linear algebra, or calculus in their adult lives; another four mention using statistics or probability (which would seem to require knowledge of algebra). Even those with simple math skills could see that this study, such as it is, supports the opposite of Wagner's claims. In fact, this passage reveals that Wagner actually would like to reduce academic content, specifically in algebra.
All of this "21st century skills" talk appeals to our desire to prepare children for the future, but producing critical thinking, creativity, etc. takes more than just slogans. We need evidence on methods of teacher preparation, curriculum, and pedagogy that actually get us to those goals. Unfortunately, Wagner fails to provide that.
Jay P. Greene
Endowed Chair and Head of the Department of Education Reform
University of Arkansas