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Opinion
Accountability Commentary

The Truth About ‘All Children Can Learn’

By M. Donald Thomas & William L. Bainbridge — December 06, 2000 4 min read
All children can learn the basic curriculum, but only if given equal opportunity to do so.

Critics of public education have become extremely good fishermen. In the river called accountability, they have hooked a number of red herrings: zero tolerance, no child left behind, vouchers, grade-level testing, and all children can learn. While each of these schemes and slogans is part political and part nonsense, together they are rapidly being established as criteria for evaluating school effectiveness. Of the five, perhaps the most deceptive is “all children can learn.” This red herring is the most fraudulent, the most aggressively used by public school bashers, and the most likely to be promoted by educational consultants.

The late Ronald R. Edmonds, who was the acknowledged “father of the effective-schools movement,” made this statement: “All children can learn the basic curriculum of the school.” He also said that schools need state and community support. So let’s set the record straight. All children can learn the basic curriculum of the school if the following also happen:

• State legislatures provide adequate financial support for schools, as required by a number of current state supreme court decisions.

• Every child has adequate health care, as required for appropriate cognitive development.

• Every classroom is staffed by a certified teacher with an adequate salary.

• Every child attends a school that meets the life-safety codes established by the states.

• Every child is cared for in a high-quality child-care facility.

• And each child has the opportunity to learn according to his or her developmental needs.

Until such time as state legislatures become accountable for the moral behavior needed to abide by supreme court decisions, all of these so-called “reform efforts” are hollow rhetoric and political diatribe. Let’s consider the known research facts in relationship to “all children can learn.”

• All children have individualized developmental patterns influenced by environmental conditions. Monozygotic twins raised in different socioeconomic environments have been proven to differ in cognitive ability. Children enter school with a wide range of learning abilities. Yet, all of the current accountability programs that use testing strategies ignore this basic knowledge. There is no body of literature or any research that establishes that all children can learn the basic curriculum at the same time and at the same level. Further, children who live in conditions of poverty are generally provided fewer essential school enrichment tools than are children who live in affluent conditions.

• The red herrings of education, such as “all children can learn,” are designed to protect economic interests. The desire, as one state legislator put it, not to spend state money on “undeserving children” remains an objective of some individuals, even in the 21st century. The education of all children requires adequate health care, balanced nutrition, quality facilities, enrichment, and extensive learning opportunities in and out of school, especially for preschool children. This demands a stronger state commitment to value children before they come to school, and a willingness to provide adequate resources once they are in school.


All children can learn the basic curriculum of the school if given equal opportunity to do so, and if provided the opportunity to learn in accordance with standards written into the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994. Unfortunately, most states do not provide these fundamental conditions. If they did, there wouldn’t be so many state supreme court rulings that education is not funded at an adequate level. The courts do not believe that there are undeserving children.

It’s time to return to reason. What is needed is a serious attack on conditions that prevent learning.

• “All children can learn” is a deterrent to differentiating standards, teaching methodology, and assessment measures. It creates a “one size fits all” mentality—the elimination of judgment.

Judgment is the most important resource possessed by any professional. Grade-level testing, the elimination of “social promotion,” zero-tolerance measures, and similar devices are used to “teacher proof” policies and decisionmaking. The attitude is that most teachers are idiots who need to be protected. So we have tests and extreme policies making the decisions for teachers and for school administrators.

Yes, all children can learn the basic curriculum of the school if we have the courage to do what is right. We must value all children. We must provide adequate resources for schools, especially for schools in poor and rural areas. We must always make judgments based on many variables, and we must eliminate red herrings from worthwhile consideration.

It’s time to return to reason. What is needed is a serious attack on conditions that prevent learning. Slogans and schemes may have linguistic value, but they do not assist “all children to learn the basic curriculum of the school.”

M. Donald Thomas, the superintendent emeritus of the Salt Lake City schools and a state education reform leader in Utah, is the chairman of the advisory board of SchoolMatch in Westerville, Ohio. William L. Bainbridge is the president of SchoolMatch and a former superintendent of three school systems.

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as The Truth About ‘All Children Can Learn’

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