On any weekday, more than 50 million kids will get up in the morning and head off to America’s public elementary, middle, and secondary schools. Six or seven hours later, about 10 million of them will head home—or somewhere else—frustrated, angry, or depressed. The day will have been a lousy one for them, just like the day before, and probably the next one, too.
Research tells us that approximately 20 percent of students struggle to learn. Some of these students need and receive special help because of a specific learning disability, but many others struggle unnecessarily, simply because they learn differently—their brains aren’t “wired” the way their classmates’ are.
On a basic emotional level, that is a profoundly sad fact. But, on another, it represents a colossal waste of money.
Because of the recession and plummeting tax revenues, public schools are struggling to accomplish their mission. Yet, even in these tough times, public schools are spending on average about $10,000 per year on the education of each of those 50 million-plus pupils. That’s a total of $500 billion—or half a trillion—dollars.
If 10 million kids on whom that money is being spent are at risk of failing in school, of not getting the education they need to help them become engaged and productive citizens, then we are at risk of wasting about $100 billion a year, a sizable amount by any standard.
That is an inexcusable and completely unnecessary fact of educational life in America.
Performance data can tell us which students are not learning, and what skills they are failing to acquire. But they do not tell us why students are struggling or how teachers can address their learning needs. The good news? Scientific research on how students learn—and vary in their learning—equips us with the ability to understand learning differences and craft teaching strategies aimed at reaching each and every one of those 10 million American kids who struggle to learn.
As a former special education teacher, I have seen these learning differences firsthand. And now, as the head of an organization dedicated to addressing them, I know that different ways of learning need not derail students or overtax their teachers. The 48,000 teachers across the country who have worked with my group, All Kinds of Minds, have proved this. Trained to understand, identify, and address learning variation, they are making a difference in the lives of students for whom school is especially difficult.
Such teachers should be commended, of course, but they represent only a small fraction of the American teaching force of 3 million. More needs to be done to increase their numbers.
The economic-stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed by the president last year includes $100 million for teacher education and professional development. That is truly “smart money.” Though $100 million is nothing to sneeze at, however, compared with the $100 billion that is at risk, it really isn’t much at all.
Whatever the amount spent, or the legislative language employed, teaching remains a noble mission and a hugely important task. It only stands to reason that providing America’s teachers—and those who seek to become teachers—with more knowledge about how the human brain is wired differently from learner to learner could make school more enjoyable, rewarding, and productive for millions of students. That, it would seem, is a no-brainer.
A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Smart Money in Tough Times