President Bush and a host of well-meaning politicians on Capitol Hill are promising to craft an education policy that will “leave no child behind.” It’s a quintessentially American promise: grand and idealistic, born of our sweetly naive faith in American ingenuity and determination. But having worked today, as every day, with some of the children that our schools leave behind, I hold out little hope that current policy initiatives will radically improve their chances of success in school. Especially in this period of high-stakes testing and “standards” of learning, with their exclusive emphasis on academic competencies and their insistence that all children learn at the same rate, our public schools are virtually ensuring that some children—especially the poor—will be left behind.
In this period of high-stakes testing and "standards" of learning, our public schools are virtually ensuring that some children will be left behind.
Once a child falls behind in school, it takes more than a “Texas miracle” for him to catch up. Research in literacy acquisition has been especially clear on this point. One of the most disturbing, if enlightening, findings in literacy research over the past 20 years holds that if a child begins school behind his classmates in rudimentary understandings of rhyme and letter sounds—the kind of knowledge that comes from having been raised in a literate environment—he will stay behind throughout his schooling. In literacy education circles, this is called the “Matthew effect"—the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Most children who are identified in 1st grade as at risk for failing to learn to read live in poverty. Schools, like our society, have their safety nets, but in almost all cases, these children will grow ever “poorer” over the course of schooling than their peers from middle- to upper-income families.
Why is it that our schools fail to reach a significant minority of children? I teach reading in a middle school, and I firmly believe that all children can become competent readers and writers regardless of social or economic status. Nonetheless, it is clear to me that Americans generally underestimate, or perhaps choose to ignore, the range and depth of needs borne by the children who fall behind in school. We devise interventions and targeted assistance—some of high quality and all well-intended—to help kids catch up or prevent them from falling through the cracks. But what such programs wind up doing, in effect, is obscuring the need for radical, systemic change.
Consider Jevon, one of the 50 most “at risk” 5th graders at my school. Jevon started school behind and has remained so. While there has been very little good fortune in Jevon’s life, he has gone to good public schools. He was identified early as at risk for failing to learn to read, and he has received excellent instruction and repeated reading interventions with bright teachers who care about him. But progress in reading is slow and incremental for Jevon—it doesn’t show up on standardized tests, and it doesn’t happen at the rate demanded by the public school system. Moreover, Jevon’s difficulty with reading feeds—and is fed by—difficulties in all other areas of schooling, social as well as academic. Jevon is a regular in the principal’s and the counselor’s offices. In fact, Jevon rarely spends an entire day in his classroom. Could there be a more glaring sign that school isn’t working for him than this?
I would not call for or expect radical change in our schools if Jevon’s case were extraordinary, but it isn’t. Were I allowed to do so, I could name 75 children in my school alone who fit the same profile. In my school system, over 100 at-risk 1st graders per year receive intensive tutoring in a program called Book Buddies, just as Jevon did. Most children leave the program having made progress, though few are actually performing at “grade level” by the year’s end. Many therefore continue to receive services throughout the elementary school years, through such programs as Title I. Nearly every child that I teach was a Book Buddy and a Title I student. Nevertheless, in 6th grade, most read at a 3rd grade level. Like Jevon, they are too well acquainted with school’s discipline system, as well as with failure on the measures of progress supported by the school and the state.
Americans generally underestimate, or perhaps choose to ignore, the range and depth of needs borne by the children who fall behind in school.
In short, we are creating, however unintentionally, a permanent underclass in our public schools—not unlike in our society at large. Many of these children are making progress in school, when we take into account the odds against them from the beginning of their schooling and the sheer amount of time it takes to make up a deficit in literacy acquisition. But increasingly, states are demanding that we not take those things into account. In fact, it appears that many legislatures have decided that the best way to deal with this underclass of children is to flunk it out. Nearly 30 states now have some form of academic “standards of learning,” accompanied by high-stakes tests that purport to measure whether teachers, schools, and students are doing their jobs well. All children are held accountable to the same standards and are tested at the same time using the same measures. No educator I know is opposed to “standards of learning.” But high-stakes testing administered in this way, guarantees failure of the children I’m talking about.
Take, for example, our president’s home state of Texas. Studies of President Bush’s “Texas miracle” are suggesting that as scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills—the Texas high-stakes test—have improved, dropout rates have increased. Thus, the problem of the underclass takes care of itself. In my home state, Virginia, the outlook for the neediest student is just as grim. For a Virginia public school to maintain accreditation after 2004, 70 percent of its students must pass the state’s high-stakes assessment—called the Standards of Learning, or SOL, tests. It has become clear in the initial years of the SOL program that for the majority of public schools, 70 percent is a lofty goal. But let us assume we achieve it. Let’s assume that all schools beat the odds and manage to make the gold standard, the magical 70 percent. What of the remaining 30 percent? I asked a school principal this question. “It’s cold-hearted,” he admitted, “but I honestly can’t afford to worry about it. My concern is the 70, making the 70.” The rich get rich, the poor get poorer. The state has, in essence, endorsed our writing them off.
To be fair, I doubt that any policymaker intended to write off the 30 percent of students who could not pass the test, and I’m certain that public school teachers will continue to lie awake at nights mulling over why Johnny can’t read, and how they are morally responsible for changing that. But the fact remains that the very children whom public schools have historically failed to educate will be failed by the standards movement. And because many schools (mine included) will have to work miracles with money, time, staff allocations, curriculum development, test-taking courses, and other matters just to hit the magic 70 percent, what aside from human kindness will compel them to continue until they reach the remaining 30 percent? The standards movement, in sum, has formally institutionalized the very cycle of failure that it intended to break.
So what kind of school reform might our politicians propose if they truly wish to “leave no child behind”? Literacy does not guarantee access to culture and power, but illiteracy is characteristic of the disenfranchised and powerless. In America, we assume that public schools will do whatever it takes to ensure that every child becomes literate. I don’t want to suggest that many schools aren’t making impressive efforts at leaving no child behind. But the truth is that a significant number of children would benefit from a much more fundamental reform of our assumptions about “schooling” than is currently under discussion in Washington or elsewhere.
Here are some questions that I think the president, members of both major political parties, and in fact all of us as citizens should be asking about public education:
For a Virginia public school to maintain accreditation after 2004, 70 percent of its students must pass the state's high-stakes assessment. What of the remaining 30 percent?
- Why do all children begin school at the same time and matriculate at the same rate? Six hours, 180 days, 12 years ... every American child does the same amount of time, and yet we know that children in diverse cultures develop at very different rates, cognitively and emotionally. We would never expect the same performance from a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old—we wouldn’t expect the younger to catch up with the older until both were in their late 20s. But the intervention programs in our schools are predicated on the assumption that some students are behind and must be caught up before it’s too late. Even the (laudable) preschool initiatives supported by the Bush administration and literacy research seek to guarantee that every child will begin kindergarten ready to read or, at the very least, will be on the same basic page by grade 3. With such thinking, which ignores the vast differences among children, we are setting programs and children up for failure.
- Why does an American schoolteacher instruct, on average, 23 children simultaneously? The short answer to this one is money; group instruction is more cost-effective than, say, tutorials. But it is rarely more pedagogically effective, and never so with struggling students. Imagine a doctor who diagnosed and treated 25 patients at a time. You can’t, because we wouldn’t allow it in America. And yet the educational needs of some schoolchildren are no less complex to diagnose and treat than the health needs of seriously ill patients. Far fewer children would be left behind by our schools if we gave them two hours of instruction per day, one-on-one with a trained teacher, instead of six hours in a group of 30.
- Why do schools house so many children? In my middle school of 750 students—a modest size by urban standards—we’re now using sophisticated data- collection procedures to keep track of our children. A mouse click will pull up everything from standardized-test scores to the mother’s phone number at work. What would happen if our schools were small enough that teachers could simply know all the children, their teachers, and their caregivers? Small enough that we could meet, as a whole group, regularly to discuss how to improve our school? I don’t intend to conjure up romantic myths of one-room schoolhouses, but school size does matter. If we want to end school violence, we should make it impossible for kids to fade into a sea of faces, or for teachers to see a face they don’t know.
- Why is such primacy given to academic curricula? The standards movement completely ignores the value of arts, vocational, and character education. Some of my lowest-achieving readers have rhythm and rhyme, are curious about how to cook and build, can doodle impressive portraits in the margins of their history text. Many desperately need immersion in activities that help them learn to control anger, work cooperatively with others, give instead of take. But all of these activities are crammed in at the edges of the curriculum in a standard K-12 public school, even if, in life, they will be front and center.
The kind of school reform that will make a difference for Jevon and his peers requires us to think outside the box. It will demand courage, imagination, and a generous allocation of financial and human resources. In short, it will be controversial and expensive—characteristics with which politicians do not wish to be associated.
But what is more costly to our democracy and our humanity than the institutionalized failure of children like Jevon? School alone cannot rescue him. It is a pernicious and quintessentially American myth that education alone can democratize, giving all of us equal access so long as we each have gumption. And yet, school could improve Jevon’s prospects substantially if the education were designed for him. The trouble is that none of our leaders cares to, or dares to, reform education for his sake. It’s easier and cheaper to leave him behind.
Derek Furr is a reading specialist in a middle school in Charlottesville, Va.