It does not seem all that significant when a child in the early grades is asked to move on to the next lesson before he or she has mastered the current one. It happens slowly at first and teachers strive to give each child the help they need. Once a student has fallen behind the first time the odds that he or she will fall behind a second, third, or fourth time, increases. Gradually, as they are compelled to keep the class moving the frequency with which it happens inures teachers to the tragedy unfolding in their classrooms.
With each such incident the probability grows that falling behind will become a recurring theme. Very quickly students find themselves on the precipitous path to habitual failure. It is the slipperiest of slopes and it is a rare student who his able to climb out of the vortex.
The reader is urged to sift through your own memories for a time when you fell behind, even if only briefly. Do you remember the panic of falling behind or not understanding? Most of us do remember such experiences because they were traumatic. Imagine how you would have felt had academic failure become a recurring pattern in your life; day after day, week after week, semester after semester, and year after year.
Look up the standardized test scores for public schools in your area. Pay particular attention to the standardized tests that are utilized in high schools to determine qualifications for graduation. In Indiana we call these End of Class Assessments (ECA). Passing the ECAs in key subjects is an essential qualification for graduation. How many schools report that 20 to 30 percent of the 10th graders failed to pass one or more of their ECAs? How many schools report failure rates of greater than 30 percent?
Many of these students will still graduate because they will have subsequent opportunities to take their ECAs after remediation classes. Others will be granted waivers in which other measures have been utilized to determine eligibility for graduation. Their graduation notwithstanding, most of these young men and women will find that they are qualified for only the most menial and low-paying jobs in their communities. They are limited to such choices because they are unable to demonstrate even the most rudimentary levels of literacy and numeracy.
Although these students are a diverse group, demographically, a disproportionate number of these young adults are poor and/or black. Where do you think they will end up? If we are honest with ourselves we know they face a bleak future and will likely produce children with bleak futures. Many will spend their lives in poverty and some will be in and out of correctional facilities.
Once a week, I test young men and women who want to join the military. Week after week, anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of these young people who take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) fail to get the minimum score necessary to be eligible for enlistment.
When I hand them the envelope, as they leave the testing room, I am thankful that I am unable to see their faces when they read their score. I can only imagine how dejected they must feel as this window of opportunity, for which they had such high hopes, slams shut in their faces. Most who fail will return in 30 days to do a retest.
“I think I will do better, this time,” they tell me. “I have really studied!”
It is almost impossible to make up, in 30 days of cramming, what the rest of us have learned over our 12 years of primary and secondary education and the vast majority of the retest candidates see little if any improvement in their scores. After another 30 days they can take the ASVAB a third time, and after another 6 months they can take it for the fourth time. Rarely are these efforts rewarded.
One young man actually asked me, one evening, “How are we supposed to know this stuff?” And, he asked it not with sarcasm but with a look of utter despair. Think about his question. I checked his information and this young man was listed as a high school graduate. It is a cruel trick of nature that, so often, we are called upon to make important decisions that will impact the rest of our lives well before we have gained the maturity to decide wisely.
We call these kids failures and we blame poverty, racism, and segregation but we are horribly wrong. These children—our students—fail because the educational process we make available to them is neither designed nor structured to give them what they need and what they deserve.
We also blame teachers but in this we are also terribly wrong. The overwhelming majority of teachers do the absolute best they can under the adverse circumstances in which they find themselves. Any culpability they must bear is not because they do not work hard or lack commitment. Rather it is because they do not step back and challenge the reasons why we keep doing what we do in spite of the consistently disappointing outcomes for so many students.
The best, and also the saddest, thing of all is that it does not have to be this way. All that is required of us, if we truly wish to change the reality of public education for so many of our nation’s children, is to accept responsibility for challenging our assumptions about what we do and why.
What a wonderful gift it would be if we would refuse to accept failure and pledge to give each and every student the time and patience they need to progress from one lesson to the next at the best speed of which they are capable; without regard for the performance of their classmates.