Naming the Crisis

Winter 2017

By Michael Brosnan

Reading Most Likely to Succeed, by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith, I found myself agreeing with most of their recommendations for how schools should approach education today. I love how these recommendations connect to recent brain science research about how children learn. I particularly appreciate that they underscore the value of self-directed learning in Montessori and other progressive schools.

The learning we retain, they point out, comes mostly from “applying knowledge to new situations or problems, research on questions and issues that students consider important, peer interaction, activities, and projects. Experiences, rather than short-term memorization, help students develop the skills and motivation that transform lives.”

I can’t argue that the book isn’t well written or that the authors didn’t do their homework or that their suggestions for our reimagined K–12 system — moving away from lectures and standardized testing and focusing more on helping kids formulate life skills that will serve them well, as they put it, in the Innovation Age —don’t have merit. Their recommendations would clearly improve schools. In fact, I’ve praised and cheered on similar ideas put forward by other writers, many of whom are noted here.

So why, I wondered, was I feeling uncomfortable while reading the book?

It became clear only after I opened the second book on education I’ve wanted to read for a while now: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert Putnam.

Wagner and Dintersmith and Putnam structure their books by comparing our present times and needs to those of the mid- to late-20th century. Both books argue that we need to reshape education for our time. Both underscore the notion that we have a crisis in education and outline the dangers we face if we don’t make changes ASAP. Both are steeped in research.

But I found myself far more taken by Our Kids than by Most Likely to Succeed. And much of it has to do with tone.

While Wagner and Dintersmith desire to reshape our schools so that they focus on the 21st-century skills that will serve young people well in work, community, and their private lives, what wore me out is their constant refrain that our education system has utterly failed and that America’s economic future is surely shot if we don’t improve our schools now.

They describe our system as “intense yet vapid.” They paint the grimmest picture possible: “Today our education system has become the American Nightmare.” Then they pile it on: “We are, in every important sense, educating our way to national demise.”

And it’s not just our precollegiate system that’s broken, they argue. Our colleges and universities are doing an equally lousy job — and we’ll be better off once we stop, as they put it, worshipping “at the altar of academic credentials.”

Who the “we” is isn’t clear. I don’t know many people who go as far as to worship academic credentials. The people I know respect those who have completed a college degree at a reputable school. Most people I know have benefited from their degree and the knowledge they’ve gained with it. Same for their children. Wagner and Dintersmith more or less suggest, however, that the entire new generation of college graduates can’t argue its way out of a paper bag. They don’t think much better of those of us currently working in and around schools.

I suppose there are many readers who will cheer them on for this sharp critique of our education system. For me, however, this steady stream of put-downs feels like a tiring hyperbolic ploy. I also wish they would view education reform more broadly and not keep returning to the lens of U.S. economic dominance and global competition. Halfway through the book, they ratchet up the pressure on all schools and schoolchildren: “Billions of global workers will compete for a livelihood, with ubiquitous interconnectivity making it possible for hungry young kids in Sri Lanka to take jobs away from complacent young Americans.”

Maybe they are right — but their tone makes education feel like a slightly softer version of The Hunger Games.

There’s much to admire in Most Likely to Succeed. I like that the authors spend time asking people about what they valued most about their education. The vignettes are a good touch and lend additional credence to their recommendations. The authors’ statement of purpose for education is also inspiring: “The purpose of education is to engage students with their passions and growing sense of purpose, teach them critical skills needed for career and citizenship, and inspire them to do their very best to make the world better.”

I do hope we listen to them. I do hope that we reshape our schools more in line with what brain science says works. But I’m starting to long for writers to make these points without putting their authorial boots on our throats.

Which brings me to Robert Putnam and Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

It’s important to know that Putnam isn’t writing primarily about school reform in Our Kids. He focuses on how we can rebuild our society so that all children have a chance at a good life. Education is central to it, but he wants us to look at all the cultural structures that impede people from living fulfilling lives today.

Putnam doesn’t tie his thesis to a wish for U.S. economic dominance, either. He’s more interested in economic justice. Education for a thriving democracy.

Our Kids starts with a review of upward mobility and class differences in the 1950s. Essentially, Putnam points out, there were class differences, but they weren’t as stark as they are today. They didn’t lead to as broad and damaging a divide in class, education, and opportunity as they do today. And they didn’t, as they too often do today, squash the possibility of upper mobility — of living some acceptable version of the American Dream. He doesn’t gloss over the racial and gender discrimination of the mid-20th century. But he is driving home the point that there are lessons to be learned from our past.

In the second half of the 20th century, income distribution began to skew toward the top and the bottom. “In the early 1970s,… that decades-long equalizing trend began to reverse,” Putnam writes, “slowly at first but then with accelerating harshness.” The percentage of people living in poverty in the United States has jumped significantly since 1990. Along with poverty have come troubling gaps in opportunity.

More specifically, Putnam writes, “In the quarter century between 1979 and 2005, average after-tax income (adjusted for inflation) grew by $900 a year for the bottom fifth of American households, by $8,700 a year for the middle fifth, and by $745,000 a year for the top 1 percent of households.”

While Wagner and Dintersmith want you to believe that a college degree is not worth the cost, Putnam quotes economist David Autor, who offers a different perspective (at least for men): “Between 1980 and 2012, real hourly earnings of full-time college-educated U.S. males rose anywhere from 20 percent to 56 percent, with the greatest gains among those with a postbaccalaureate degree. During the same period, real earnings of males with high school or lower educational levels declined substantially, falling by 22 percent among high school dropouts and 11 percent among high school graduates.”

Yes, the recession temporarily slowed things down. But Putnam points out that “from 2009 to 2012, the real incomes of the top 1 percent of American families rose 31 percent, while the real incomes of the bottom 99 percent barely budged (up less than half a percentage point).”

We have a tendency to want to blame schools for this cultural divide. It’s not true, of course, though it’s clear that our schools serving lower-income students today are inadequate for the job at hand. And it’s not, Putnam points out, simply a matter of what is taught in schools. Putnam is no fan of the standardized testing obsession of the past three decades, but he is aware that children who graduate from public high schools in our wealthier communities, even with all the schools’ flaws, are doing OK in life. Our goal, he argues, is that we need to create greater opportunities and offer more support for our children in our poorer communities.

Putnam examines the impact of poverty from a number of angles — including marriage, parenting, and family life. He examines our criminal justice system and its impact on the poor and especially on people of color. Ultimately, he drives home the point that there is a correlation between a host of shortsighted public policies and social and wealth divides. We, collectively, created this problem. We need to undo it.

At one point, Putnam asks us to consider the difference in outcomes between two high schools, one in Fullerton, California, and another in neighboring Santa Ana. The former high school has its flaws, but the latter is nightmarish. In a true democracy, this wouldn’t be the case. This point was made repeatedly in the late 20th century by Jonathan Kozol and others. Putman is making it here again in a 21st-century context. For some reason, it’s a story we still don’t want to hear.

Maybe what I feel most strongly after reading the two books is (a) we can’t fix our educational system without addressing the whole array of social issues that create our wealth and opportunity divide, and (b) while it’s right that we shift our school programs so they are actually educating our children for life and work — rather than to feed the coffers of testing-industry execs — all conversations about school reform need to acknowledge the broader context.

When it comes to school reform, Putnam makes a rather straightforward argument that we need to move “poor kids into better schools” by investing “much more money in their existing schools so as to improve their quality.” Our goal is not to equalize funding, but to equalize opportunity by funding schools to fit the needs of their students. This would, in fact, mean that more money would go to poorer districts — for infrastructure, better- trained and more experienced teachers, and for essential social support.

What Our Kids makes me realize is that the sort of innovation that I long for is not just what and how we teach our kids but also the social innovation that will help our nation see that it truly is in our best interest to invest in all children so they can live fulfilling lives.

Michael Brosnan

Michael Brosnan was the longtime editor of Independent School magazine.