Julia Steiny: Ron Wolk, How Education Resources Waste Minds

Now in his 80s, Ron Wolk has no patience for mincing words. So Wolk, the founder and original editor of Education Week, wrote Wasting Minds – Why our education system is failing and what we can do about it.

Julia Steiny

It’s a fast read, rich with vivid stories. The message is dark. He says flatly, “States have spent nearly 20 years formulating 21st-century standards for a 19th-century school system.” Wolk has been working in education well over 30 years, making policy with education luminaries as well as walking school hallways observing the good, bad and the ugly.

He summarizes what he’s seen in his brief preface: “In the early 1970s, the United Negro College Fund conducted a public advertising campaign centered on the slogan ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste.’ The slogan became part of the American vernacular. Sadly, evidence makes clear that the minds of millions of students of all races are still being wasted today.”

You’ll be glad to know he’s not big on blaming anyone in particular for this waste. We are all responsible. “School boards, administrators and teachers are not bad people who want schools to fail, but they feel compelled to protect their routines, their status and their turf, and they weave a rationale to justify that.” They’re human.

Wolk gave an overview of the problem last spring when he spoke to a group gathered at the Annenberg Foundation. “For the last 30 years, I’ve spent most of my waking hours thinking about education. And I tried for years to write about education. But it’s a system. So you’d start on, say, teaching, but get all tangled up in the details. Eventually I had an epiphany: the system is based on a number of assumptions that are flawed or flat-out wrong.”

Wasting Minds, then, is about the flawed assumptions underlying our school systems, assumptions that desperately need to be replaced. Most importantly, the assumption Wolk insists should be newly planted at the center of education is:

“To help motivate children and maximize their abilities, we must educate them one at a time and tailor their education to their interests and needs.”

In other words, if each kid’s desires, hopes, dreams and motivations can’t somehow be factored into how educators make policy and how teachers teach, education will never be designed to serve flesh-and-blood kids.

Wolk says, “We know that no matter what we teach, students will not learn what they don’t want to learn.” But the education industry knows very little about student motivation. Wolk uses the second half of his book to give examples of how some schools get it right, and to dream of an even more student-centered future.

But the book’s first half focuses on why schools aren’t kid-centric now. I found it painfully compelling. He articulates 10 assumptions built firmly into federal and state educational policy. I’ll discuss only the first assumption here. But just the chapter titles are a pleasure to read: “If it Moves, Test It.” And “The Quest for the Supreme Leader.” I don’t agree with him on every point, but it’s a relief just to spend time with someone who is also observing the same naked emperor I see.

Assumption number one is: “Students are not performing adequately because they and their teachers don’t work hard enough. The solution is a “get-tough” policy like No Child Left Behind.”

This statement is partly true. Wolk writes, “There is no denying that too many students are unmotivated and unengaged; they find schools boring at best and alien places at worst.” And “there are undoubtably teachers who retired long ago and didn’t tell anybody.”

But he goes on, “to assume that the problem of poorly-performing schools and students can be solved with threats and penalties is to misunderstand both the institution and the people in it, and to further widen the achievement gap.” The federal NCLB law was supposed “to focus on the plight of the disadvantaged.” But in practice, it promoted tons of testing that was supposed to hold adults accountable. The law’s mandate to “sanction,” which is to say punish schools for getting the wrong test scores means that the schools with the most challenged kids are under almost constant threat of humiliation and sometimes firings or closure.

Who does their best work under threat of punishment? No one questions that we needs good data that tells us what kids are learning and what they aren’t. Schools are super-complex organizations, and we need to understand the effectiveness of our efforts.

But NCLB’s punitive approach has demoralized and brow-beaten many schools into becoming frightened, hostile environments. Challenged, disengaged or defiant kids have become such a liability, they threaten teachers’ jobs. Naturally, teachers want the “bad” kids out. This, Wolk notes, is where the “school-to-prison” pipeline begins.

And prisons are the ultimate waste of human lives.

Impassioned, Wolk writes, “An effective education system is, in many ways, a prerequisite to finding solutions to all of the other formidable problems the nation faces. Without it, where will we get the people, the ideas, the creativity, and the technology needed to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of this new century?”

And an ineffective system such as we have now is a multi-billion dollar waste of kids’ minds and potential.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny