The way we grade the academic performance of our students in the overwhelming majority of American schools, public or private, suggests that we view the educational process as a competition rather than a pure learning process.
State standards lay out very specific academic expectations for all students beginning in first grade and progressing up to the point that we assess their readiness for graduation at the end of the twelfth grade. Toward the end of the child’s third year, at least here in Indiana, we begin administering the ISTEP+ exams to evaluate whether our students are where the state thinks children should be by the second semester of the third grade and each grade, thereafter.
Given the wide disparity that exists on an academic readiness continuum between young children who arrive for their first day of school, one can only wonder why we would ever consider it realistic that students should all arrive at the same place, relative to state standards, by any arbitrary point in time.
If the ISTEP+ exams and the standardized exams used in other states were meant to be purely diagnostic they could provide useful information that would help teachers adjust their classroom strategies to the unique needs of their students.
The moment, however, that we begin evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ performance on such exams, it becomes a competition. If we stop and think about it, the same could be said for the grades children receive at the end of each grading period or semester. If those grades were meant to gage which children need more help and which are ready to move on to new material, the grades could be useful tools. We all know that this is not the way it works, however.
We do not set aside the time to provide extra help for students who are unable to demonstrate sufficient mastery of the subject matter unless they are so far behind their classmates that moving them forward seems problematic but, even then, we agonize over the decision. Do we hold them back in spite of the perceived social and emotional consequences to insure that they will have more time and attention to master the subject matter or do we move them forward with their classmates even though we know them to be woefully unprepared for success in each succeeding grade?
What this dreaded dichotomy should tell us is that a system that requires educators to make such choices is dysfunctional and ignores the needs of our most vulnerable children, to their great disadvantage.
It makes no more sense to evaluate students on the basis of their ability to keep up with their peers than it does to judge teachers and schools as failures when the percentage of students who are falling behind crosses some arbitrary line of demarcation. Teachers and schools have no control over the aggregate levels of preparation and motivation of the students assigned to their respective schools and classrooms. Even more importantly, students have no control over how well their parents have prepared them for academic success.
What kids who arrive poorly prepared need is a process that acknowledges their unique situations and is structured to give them the time and special attention they need to be successful academically. What teachers and schools require is a process that is designed to give them the latitude necessary to respond to the “special needs” of these children.
Let us take great care not confuse our use of the phrase “special needs.” A student who is developmentally delayed due to environmental circumstances is not the same as a student who has a clearly defined learning disability or an emotional or psychological “disability.” Quite possibly, many students are diagnosed with some learning or emotional disability simply because we have not been cognizant of the fact that they were held to expectations that were unreasonable given their level of preparedness.
In effect, the thing we have been most successful in teaching these students is that they cannot learn as well as the majority of their classmates. The reality is that these kids got off to a late start and the professional educators on whom they depended were unable to recognize and respond to the unique realities of their situations.
The standard response to this dilemma, on the part of many educators, is to throw up their hands in figurative despair and respond “what are we to do?”
The answer to the question “what are we to do?” is relatively simple. We simply need to come to an agreement that the structure and flow of our current educational process has become so brittle, over time, that it no longer meets the needs of an incredibly diverse population of Twenty-first Century students. All that is necessary is to reinvent the structure to give both teachers and their students the time they need to learn within the context of a unique academic path with ever-rising expectations. When these children and their teachers, discover that they can be successful, academically, everything changes from their view of the world to their belief in themselves.
Providing one example of how this can be accomplished is the purpose of my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America.