It is not unusual to hear public school teachers express concern that all the recognition and celebration is directed to “high-achieving students.” Rarely is attention paid to the students who worked hard to receive a lesser grade and many teachers question why the effort of the latter group is not acknowledged and celebrated.
It is a tragedy that so many children go through school without ever having their accomplishments celebrated; the last thing they need, however, is a “participation trophy.” The tragedy is not that we never celebrate the accomplishments of low-performing students rather that they rarely have accomplishments worthy of celebration.
This raises the question, why are we content to preserve an education process that produces such disparate results?
Just because a student does not understand a lesson the first time through, does not mean they are incapable of learning and understanding. It just means they need more time and they need an education process that allows teachers to adapt what they do to respond to a student’s unique needs. Rarely do we give kids an opportunity to keep working until they learn. On the few occasions that we find a way to give kids the extra time to learn, it is because we found a way to circumvent the education process not because the malleability of the process gave us the freedom to innovate.
The current education process is structured like a competition that assumes that all kids are on a level playing field. It rewards the students who learn the most the fastest. Even worse, it requires that we grade kids on how much they have learned in an arbitrary timeframe and then record that score next to their name. Worst of all, we push the students onward without the prerequisite knowledge they will need to be successful on subsequent lessons, not to mention as adult citizens of a participatory democracy.
We go to great lengths to help a student qualify for graduation even though they are unable to perform at the level expected of them with reference to academic standards. It is as if having a piece of parchment that says they qualify for graduation will excuse them when they are unable to qualify for or do a job; when they apply for college admission or seek enlistment in the Armed Services.
What does a young man or woman do when they are unable to obtain and keep a decent job or pursue other meaningful opportunities because they lack the basic skills required to make a place for themselves in mainstream society? If these young adults are black or other minorities the challenges they face are often insurmountable and they are left at the mercy of discrimination. We wonder why so many find themselves in prison or are the victims of an early, violent death. We wonder why so many of them live in poverty and produce new generations of children with needs for which our education process is unequipped to meet.
We shake our heads in bewilderment when so many American voters seem willing to believe anything said by the leaders of whatever political point of view to which they are loyal. Do we not see the connection that we have sent millions of young men and women out into society without the knowledge and skills necessary to evaluate the critical issues of the day and to think independently?
Public school educators seem unable to understand that the motivation of education reformers, as poorly conceived as their solutions might be, is a result of their dissatisfaction with public education and the quality of high school graduates. They are dissatisfied customers seeking to replace their supplier.
The existing education process restricts our teachers’ ability to give students the close personal relationships they need to be healthy, both emotionally and intellectually. The process does not permit teachers to formally assess each student’s level of academic preparedness and, then, design a learning path to meet their unique needs. It does not allow teachers to give students the time and attention they need to learn. It does not give kids however many attempts they need to be able to demonstrate that they understand. The education process is not set up to help kids learn as much as they are able at their own best pace. It does not help them learn well enough that they can apply what they have learned in real-life situations.
Rather than seeking ways to help teachers deal with the stress and frustration of teaching a classroom of kids who have lost hope, have stopped trying, and have begun acting out, why don’t we address the root causes of both the frustration of our teachers and our students’ lost hope. We do not because it is difficult if not impossible for people to stop and look at the big picture when they are immersed in what they are doing; when they are, as the old saying goes, “up to their necks in a swamp full of alligators.”
Low-performing students, particularly the disadvantaged, have become a norm in public education, particularly in racially and economically diverse communities. While I believe most public school teachers and administrators believe that these kids can learn, one must wonder how many teachers and administrators have come to believe this is the best we can expect.
What educators must do is find a vantage point from which they can see the entire education process, as an integral whole, and then ask themselves whether they are doing what they should be doing. The fact that our classrooms, grade-levels, and the way we organize teachers and students has been in place for generations does not mean it is the only way to do what we do.
We should be asking:
• “Does the education process exist to drive our purpose or should our mission drive the education process?”
• “Does the education process exist to serve children and their teachers or are teachers and their students expected to sacrifice their wants, needs, personalities, and unique capabilities in conformance with the structure or process?” and, finally;
• “Are academic standards a representative guideline of what we think kids need to know in order to have meaningful choices in life, or is it both a road map and time table of how students should get from point A to Z, no matter what their individual potential, capabilities, and interests?”
My challenge to public school teachers, administrators, and policy makers is to believe that designing and creating an education model that can be molded around teachers and students is a simple human-engineering project no different than designing any other production process. All it requires is that we open our hearts and minds to the belief that there is a better way to do what we do and the faith and hope that it can be found just beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom.
I offer my education model, as an example, of an education process that enables teachers to develop and master their craft for the sole purpose of helping every child develop their God-given potential.