Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do about It

Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do about It

Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do about It

Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do about It


Why has successful school reform been so difficult to achieve, despite decades of well-intentioned efforts, endless rhetoric, and billions of dollars of investment? Why do most U.S. schools continue to produce disappointing results? Why is there such a disconnect between the schools we need and the schools we have?

In this thoughtful and insightful book, Ronald A. Wolk tackles these questions head-on, identifying key assumptions that have shaped the debate on school reform for the past several decades, including the emphasis on standards and testing, calls for a longer school day and year, the push to enroll more students in advanced math classes, and the quest to place a highly qualified teacher in every classroom. Backed by research and other evidence, he points out the flaws in each assumption, and then proposes alternative assumptions as the basis for new, innovative schools that would emphasize such elements as

• Individualized instruction, with various pathways for learning;

• Real-world contexts for learning;

• Performance assessment;

• A restructuring of public education to expand preschool; and

• Transformation of the teachers' role from instructor to advisor.

Acknowledging that the current system is too entrenched to accept radical reform, Wolk suggests incorporating his assumptions into a separate, parallel strategy for new schools. The result is a provocative proposal for teachers, administrators, policymakers, parents, and others to consider as they contemplate the future of public education in the United States.


When we launched Education Week in September 1981, I, like most Americans, knew virtually nothing about elementary and secondary education. I had spent the previous 20 years as a university administrator—a decade at Johns Hopkins and another at Brown—and I thought about schools only when I was seeking one for my kids.

I left Brown in 1978 to become president and editor of Editorial Projects in Education, which had founded The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1966. My task was to find the next “big project.” After a year’s consideration, we decided on a “chronicle of lower education” because we became convinced that the public education system was about to enter a period of unprecedented ferment and controversy.

Student test scores had been declining for 20 years; one out of four students was leaving school without graduating; attendance rates in many urban schools were as low as 60 percent; and colleges and businesses were reporting that high school graduates were coming to them poorly prepared and in need of remedial courses.

To get a sense of whether a weekly newspaper was needed, my cofounder, Martha Matzke, and I talked with hundreds of people in the field and studied all the educational periodicals we could find. We were not impressed by what we saw or heard. People we interviewed generally said three things: (1) there is not enough news in education to justify a weekly; (2) education is local, and people in one state don’t care what is going on in another state; and (3) people in public schools don’t read, so at best we should consider . . .

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