A Holiday Wish for American School Children!

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.

Relationship between teacher and student trumps everything!

“I wish my teacher knew that I love her with all my heart!” was how one third grader in Colorado completed the assignment reported on ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir.

If we want all American school children to get the quality education they deserve, and that our society so desperately needs them to achieve, we must give them what they need to be successful. We can identify four things that are not only essential but they trump everything else. What we need our political leaders to come to understand, whether here in Indiana or anywhere throughout the U.S. is that standardized testing is not one of these four things.

The first thing children need is to be treated as individuals on a dedicated learning path that is tailored to their unique starting point. As every professional educator will attest, the level of preparation and motivation children bring with them on their very first day of school is as diverse as the population of parents who gave birth to them. Beginning with such a focus not only puts a child on a path on which they can be successful, it sends a subtle but powerful message that they are special and that they are valued. Nothing gives the child the absolute best opportunity to be successful and nothing helps a child develop a healthy self-esteem more than being accepted for who they are; not how they stack up to their classmates.

The second most critical component of educational success is that each child is placed in an environment in which they can enjoy a nurturing, positive, life-affirming relationship with a teacher who will love them and care for them unconditionally. We want every child to experience the joy of the special relationship that most of us recall when we think back on our favorite teacher. While this component might be second on our list, it is second only because of chronology. Creating an environment that fosters such caring relationships between teacher and child is, overwhelmingly, the most important thing we can do to assure that the child receives the highest quality education of which they are capable. Yes, I understand that some children are easier to love than others but the universal truth is that “the child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.”

The third thing the child needs is the assurance that they will get off to a good start and this requires that they begin learning how to be successful, from the very outset. This can be accomplished by creating a situation in which a child is not permitted to fail. Because we have placed them on a unique learning curve, it does not matter how a given child compares to other members of his or her class. We need to create an environment in which each and every child is given the time they need to learn each and every lesson, every step along the way. We simply must not permit them to fail. One of the things our current educational process does most successfully is to teach children how to fail. If we can, instead, begin teaching them that they can and will succeed it is amazing how success replicates itself every step along the way. It changes the equation to one in which the child’s success is a given.

The fourth essential component is that we need to engage parents as partners in the education of their sons and daughters. If we can pull the parents into the special relationship we strive to create between a child and his or her teacher we create an environment in which anything is possible and where every obstacle can be overcome. A warm, nurturing, and positive triumvirate between parents, children, and their teachers creates the most powerful motivational force in the world.

Many public school teachers will read this list and nod their head that these are important but will then go back to what they have been doing, whether or not it has been successful. The problem is that these four components are so far from the reality from most public school classrooms, particularly those in our most challenging schools and communities, that they are viewed as unreal; as abstractions.

What every professional educator must be challenged to believe at the very core of their being is that these components are not abstractions. They are real, and they can be created in each and every public school classroom in America, if only we step back and examine not only the way we do everything and why, but also the way we structure the process that supports and facilitates what we do. Each of these components is achievable and manageable; they are attainable solutions to a human engineering problem that requires only that we structure the educational process to support our most critical objectives.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge For Twenty-First Century America, I offer a blueprint for an educational process that relies on these components as a foundation for everything else it does.

I can imagine nothing that would validate a teacher’s existence more than hearing one their students say, “I wish my teacher knew that I love her with all my heart.”