Most Likely to Succeed | Tony Wagner

Summary of: Most Likely to Succeed: How to Help Our Kids Move from Credentials to Competencies
By: Tony Wagner


In ‘Most Likely to Succeed: How to Help Our Kids Move from Credentials to Competencies,’ Tony Wagner shows how the US education system’s outdated methods and goals are failing to prepare students for modern careers and informed citizenship. The book explores the historical development of the education system and its roots in the apprenticeship model, the influence of industrialization and religion, and the era’s demands for standardization and efficiency. The author calls for a complete overhaul of the system to replace task memorization with creativity and problem-solving education, ultimately encouraging learners to discover their passion and purpose.

The Failing Education System

The US education system is not adequately preparing students for career success, creating informed citizens, or promoting happiness. A Gallup study found only 11% of American business leaders feel colleges prepare students for the workplace, and over half of recent college graduates are either unemployed or in jobs that don’t require a pricey degree. The education system is also failing to create informed citizens, as people who vote most often know very little about major election issues. Furthermore, the education system is making people unhappy, as evidenced by the increase in teen suicide rates since the 1950s. Despite these failures, American society remains obsessed with academic credentials, with 94% of adults believing college is essential to their children’s career prospects. A deep dive into the history of education is needed to understand why these markers of success are still so highly valued despite their diminishing benefits.

The Evolution of Education and Credentials

The evolution of education and credentials is steeped in history. Initially, parents taught their children survival skills. As society evolved, the apprenticeship system arose and with it a master’s reputation became a student’s credential. As religion gained influence, demand for the Bible led to standardization and the development of grammar schools. Today, we can see the lasting impact of these early education systems on the current credential-based education system.

The Spillover Effect on American Education

The US education system is heavily influenced by the socio-economic developments that have occurred over time. The Industrial Revolution and the Prussian eight-year mandatory education system played a significant role in shaping current American schools. The focus on efficiency, inspired by Frederick Winslow Taylor’s workflow efficiency practices, spilled over into the education system, resulting in students being taught basic literacy and punctuality but lacking creativity and innovation. The goal of the education system was to produce workers who could perform repetitive tasks quickly and efficiently.

The Evolution of Education

The shift towards a de-industrialized economy in the US led to the emergence of a growing middle class of “white-collar” workers. The federal government increased the focus on education to keep up with the demand for knowledge workers. However, criticism of the education system intensified in the 1980s, with concerns that American students were falling behind their international peers. Standardized test preparation was intensified, but this failed to improve student performance and the education system remained largely unchanged.

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