For a great many students in American schools, school begins in elementary school with failure at a walk and ends in high school with failure at a gallop.
It starts when they first arrive at the schoolhouse door, already far behind. How can they be behind you might ask, when they are at the starting line of the race, the same position all the other runners are in? Because they have only a small fraction of the vocabulary their schoolmates have, they lack the kind of cultural experience that would enable them to connect new words to the things those words stand for, the circumstances they have grown up in have left them traumatized to the point that a psychologist—were they ever able to see one—would diagnose them with PTSD. Lead poisoning might have severely impaired their cognitive capacity. They might have aching teeth or bloody gums or an empty stomach or gunshot wounds any combination of which might make concentration in school more than a little difficult. They might have already learned to distrust all the adults in their lives.
When these kids get to the first grade, they find themselves in classes in which there might be a wide range of readiness along the variables of distress I just mentioned. The teacher does not know these kids when they first walk into his or her classroom. Their stories are all mysteries. In time, the teacher will learn more about some and less about others. But, in any case, the teacher has to make some choices about the level to which to pitch instruction in the classroom. Inevitably, it will be too high for some and too low for others. For those for whom it is too low, they will be bored. For those for whom it is too high, they will find it hard to understand the words the teacher is using, the instructions being given and the explanations being offered and even when they do understand them, they will not have the knowledge or skills they need to do the work. Slowly at first, then more quickly, they will fall behind. With every month and year, it will be harder to keep up. These students are overwhelmingly poor, African-American, Hispanic and Native American.
By the time they get to the end of elementary school, many of these children have trouble decoding the written word and even more trouble comprehending the meaning of those words when they are organized into sentences, paragraphs and pages of text. They are a year or two behind where they should be entering middle school. Lacking the key to the rest of their education, these students will try at first, rather skillfully, to fake it, and then, in frustration, will simply tune out, growing angry and defiant, becoming the student who most teachers want out of their classroom altogether, because he or she makes it hard for the teacher to maintain discipline and hard for the other students to learn. These students, though they might not have any specific physical or mental disability, make up half or more of our special education student body.
Some districts, knowing they are doing these students no favors by keeping them on the treadmill even though they are not learning even the basics, do not promote them, but hold them back until they gain the skills needed for what comes next. But the hard fact is that this does not work, because the solution offered is to give them even more of what did not work the first time, a treatment nicely calculated to instill a deep hatred of schooling in nearly every child on whom it is practiced.
And so, it is not at all unusual in many districts to find large fractions of the graduates from our middle schools entering high school many years behind where they need to be to profit from the high school curriculum. This is true despite the fact that the typical upper-grade high school curriculum uses textbooks now written at the 7th- or 8th-grade level. It should surprise no one that students who enter high schools years behind where they should be have virtually no chance of catching up. No fools, they know this and seek the first chance they can get to drop out. If they do manage to get to the finish line, these kids find it nigh impossible to get admitted to our community colleges without having to take remedial classes and the record shows that very few of those who have to take remedial classes ever get a degree from a community college.
It has been like this in the United States for a long time and we appear to be inured to it, as if this were to be expected in any mass education system.
But when our team of researchers walks into middle schools and high schools in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, Flemish Belgium or Canada, and we ask them, “What do you do about the kids who enter your schools two, three or even four years behind,” they look at us uncomprehendingly, as if we were nuts. They have no idea what we are talking about. It does not happen.
Of course, the main reason it does not happen has to do with all the things you have heard from us ad nauseum: their extensive supports for families with young children, the strategies they employ to fill all their schools with first-rate teachers, the attention they pay to the development of a highly articulated instructional system set to global standards of student achievement, their modern approach to school organization and management and so on.
But there is something else that I want to bring to your attention. It is a way of thinking about what it takes to make sure that no child is left behind that seals the deal, that provides a fine-grained framework for the day-to-day operation of schools that explains in no small measure their success but is, I think, little understood in the United States.
It begins when young children first begin formal compulsory education. In some countries, that is in Kindergarten, in others it is first grade. These students are screened, usually by their first teachers, using a common instrument or protocol, to find out how they stand with respect to their health, their cognitive development and their non-cognitive development. This is not an accountability test. Its purpose is not to punish anyone. It is to make sure that at the system’s intake point its professionals know what they need to give that young person the kind of education and related services that that young person, as an individual, needs. This, of course, is just what any decent doctor would do with a new patient. How can you know what a young person needs unless you know something about his or her vocabulary, general knowledge of the world and so on?
Using that information as a baseline, the faculty plans a curriculum that will get the students it actually has to the expectations the society has for all students. Sometimes the distance between the child’s starting point and the expectations for the end of elementary school are not so great and a perfectly conventional path will get that child there. But sometimes that is not the case at all. Someone needs to pull the medical records together and get medical help. Sometimes it is crucial to get an adult in that child’s life to provide the support that child needs. Sometimes that child does not have a chance without extensive tutoring, a full summer of support in a carefully designed school program or extended care at the end of the day and even into the evening, because there is no one at home when classes are over.
The model here is not complex, but it is demanding. It is the responsibility of the school to know a lot about the child when that child first appears at the door and then to respond accordingly. The aim is not simply to provide a supportive environment. It is to do whatever is necessary to put that child on a path to getting to middle school ready for the middle school curriculum, whatever that takes.
American law around special education has built a litigious environment around the idea of providing an appropriate education for every child that we have encountered nowhere else in the world. These other systems are not consumed by discussions of creating legal entitlements. This is simply how schools are run in parts of Europe, Australasia and East Asia; not because the lawyers have taken districts to court, but because educators think it is the right thing to do.
But there is more. In the countries I am describing, teachers spend less time teaching than American teachers do. They work in teams, sometimes for months, to create individual lessons that are very engaging, even exciting, for their students. These lessons are developed for the particular kinds of students in that school. They spend a lot of time perfecting their ability to build into their lessons questions that will enable them to gauge the degree to which each student is getting the material as it is being taught. They use this advanced kind of formative evaluation both to adjust their delivery in the course of a lesson but also to revise the lesson to make it more effective. If, despite this, one or more of the students start to fall behind, that teacher will bring that to the attention of the other teachers of that same child in their weekly grade level teacher meetings and all of the teachers of that child will work together to diagnose the problem and figure out an approach to addressing it. They might decide it is a medical problem and call for medical help, or it might be something a parent needs to deal with and arrange to see the parent or guardian or that it would be best addressed by intensive tutoring and assign one of their team, a regular teacher, to tutor that student during the regular school day, after school or on the weekend.
The reason that elementary school students in these systems do not arrive at middle school years behind is simply that no one waits that long to fix what is wrong. Student performance is monitored moment by moment in the classroom and, if a problem develops that the regular classroom teacher cannot handle, then all of that students’ teachers work as a team to deal with it. They take the view that the standard they have to get that student to is fixed, but the time available to fix it is variable. It might take more time in the day for a given student, or more time in the week, or more time in the year, but that student will get there.
But this sounds a bit like a fairy tale, all kids on a certain track to the same world-class standards. We know that some kids have enormous advantages that others will never match and we also know that some kids live in circumstances in which the cards are stacked against them no matter what the school does. “Get real,” I can hear you saying. “The teacher still has to teach to the middle. What are you going to do about that?”
The answer our team sees emerging to this question is the following: Imagine that a test of literacy in English and mathematics is given at the end of 10th grade and the pass point of this test is set to what the state has decided is a college and career ready cut point. Now imagine that that state creates curriculum frameworks based on the idea that the student will reach this standard by the end of the 10th grade. Now, further imagine that the state’s curriculum framework sets a standard for the beginning of middle school based on this end point. And that it does the same thing for the beginning of high school. The elementary schools are told that they are responsible for getting all their students to the middle school entry standard by the end of elementary school. The middle schools get the same message about the young people they are sending to high school.
But, despite the best efforts of everyone concerned, not all the primary grade kids can read with comprehension at the end of 3rd grade and not all the middle school kids are ready for high school at the end of middle school. What then?
In Singapore, the answer to the first question is that the students are put in one of a number of pathways, based on their performance on a reading test in their mother tongue: on two of these pathways, they will get to what we would think of as the college and career standard at the end of the 10th grade. One of these is an enriched track, which does not get them there faster, but provides them with an enriched curriculum, enabling them to learn the same material at a deeper level. It is these students who have the best chance of getting into the best universities. The second track gets the students in it to the same college and career standards, but at the end of 12th grade, not 10th grade. More recently, Singapore has made it possible for the students who cannot reach these standards by the end of the 12th grade to stay in high school longer until they do achieve them. The standards, as you might expect are very high, but they essentially give up on no one.
It is crucial here to understand that the astonishing performance this system delivers does not depend on remedial courses at any point in a students’ development. If, looking forward, a judgment is made on the evidence, that a student is not on a trajectory for success, then the time to get to the standard is adjusted and the student is given a curriculum with appropriate supports, one that will use the extra time effectively to get that student to the required standard. The student never repeats a course, is never made to take again a course that student has already failed.
No one is punished in this system. The amount of support provided to a student at any time is a function of how much support the professionals think will be needed to get to a high standard. They are unflinching about the standard. It is never watered down or circumvented. But they give up on no one. If the student is willing to put in the time, so are the professionals. No one has to catch up, because no one is allowed to fall behind. It is, indeed, a different system.
The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.