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The Roundtable: 'A Premise of Reform: All Children Can Learn'

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MR. HORNBECK: One of the biggest changes we have to persuade schools to accept is the conviction that all children can learn to a significantly higher level and that we know how to be successful with all children--at least we know enough so that a lack of knowledge shouldn't be considered a barrier. That is a fundamental premise of systemic reform.

MS. GRAHAM: The schools are very good at figuring out what society really wants them to do, and it is a dramatic new departure for schools to have to start educating all their children to a high level of academic achievement.

Americans have not cared about learning for two-thirds or more of our population in the past, and we are now changing that.

MS. FINE: There is even a disbelief in public education in the possibility of improved outcomes. In fact, many people don't believe it's possible.

In urban areas, when we generate positive outcomes, people--even school district administrators--accuse us of cheating. It is hard to imagine that we are working in systems that disbelieve their own efficacy and, therefore, generate a set of rationales about those kids, those mothers, those communities.

That's what happens when some of our charter schools, which are absolutely committed to being heterogeneous, start to generate positive student outcomes. They get trashed by their colleagues and by administrators.

People say, "Well, you've got the good kids, right?'' So, we do all these analyses showing that in the 8th grade our kids wore their hats backward, and didn't come to school. And guess what: A good school can make a poor kid look middle class.

MR. PETERKIN: We need to create a sense of connection between schools and communities.

We've got to connect people with all schools, the schools in their community, the schools in their state, the schools in the nation. You could say, "Well, isn't that too big a job?'' But we should at least start by trying to get individual communities interested in all the kids in those communities.

We're still suspending our belief that certain groups of kids can succeed. We're hoping that we can make the pool of successful kids somewhat larger. But many people don't believe the pool can include 100 percent of the children.

We will never get the commitment to all children by public support alone. It will take a firm connection and ownership and investment--emotionally, financially, and statutorily.

MS. GRAHAM: One has to broaden the conversation so that it's other people's children that you're worried about, not just your own.

We keep talking about the parents, who, of course, should be interested in their children's education. But we haven't been able to broaden the discourse to talk about how the nonparent community needs to be interested in children's education.

A very important element in trying to get educational reform going is in moving away from the exclusive focus on parents as the only adults interested in children's education and broadening our effort to the larger society so that they will support it with votes.

MR. PETERKIN: There is a potential, at least, for the reform effort to increase the gap between minorities themselves--between poor minorities and affluent minorities.

We need an inclusionary statement, a standard that has some strength to it, that recognizes the diversity of this country and our need to make sure that the issues of race, class, and sex are addressed.

MR. SEXTON: It may not be too hard to get general agreement on the broad concept that all children can learn. But as you get into particulars--like, what does this really mean for my child?--you have problems with your community and your parents.

It's a given in an outcomes-based system that a community has to have all children learn. That's absolutely imperative. However, as the assessment results and the so- called thresholds--the so-called goals for the schools--hit the streets, it brings to the surface something that is very, very troubling: that is the view that if all children learn, my children learn less. In other words, a lot of parents think somebody has to lose if their kids are to win.

We want the whole community to be responsible for all the kids, but there's still this lingering fear among some that it might not be the best thing for my kid.

What we're really trying to get across is a concept of the greater community. That's a totally different kind of discussion than we've traditionally had about school. It's hard to make the argument in Hazard, Ky., that schools should change because it's important to the health of the national economy. It's hard to make those big arguments in a small town--or really in any place. The discussion has to get to where people are.

MR. HORNBECK: The commitment to all kids must certainly come from passion and outrage. And it needs to come from the engagement of parents and the public. But I would argue that there must also be an incentive system actually built around a belief that all kids are going to learn.

The experience in Kentucky makes the point. That law was built with a fairly significant reward and penalty system in it. School staffs can earn as much as 40 percent of their annual salaries as a financial bonus. But they can also lose their tenure and be subject to dismissal based on student performance.

You can't apply that kind of system only to advantaged children. The disadvantaged child must also succeed in order for teachers to be rewarded.

I would go so far as to say that, if we believe all kids can learn at high levels, and if we think there's enough known about how to do that, then it follows that if a kid doesn't learn, it means he hasn't had an adequate opportunity to learn.

That's a big leap, but I'm prepared to have that proposition embedded in the heart of federal, state, and local policy. It can't be just a rhetorical flourish; it has to be at the heart of the actual mechanisms that make the system work.

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