If you wanted to create a system that limits educational options and consigns the vast majority of poor American children to continue to live in poverty, just look around you. Whether you live in urban or rural America, the results of an educational design which cripples young learners who are not among those most fortunate and nurtured are in evidence.
It is not just corrupt inner-city schools which are part of this educational design; it is the school in your community.
Consider the recipe.
Begin with young children coming to school with incredible differences in nurturing, exposure, nutrition, oral language skills, motor skills, and home routines which support academic and social readiness. Poor children are more likely to attend preschools or child care of lesser quality. Poor children are more likely to end up on the short end of experiences which support school readiness.
Even in the early grades most of our American schools have been coerced into using curriculum-driven instructional systems in which teachers are expected to “cover” long lists of content expectations. American elementary schools attempt to “cover” far more content in a year than any of the high performing school systems around the world.
A group of children with different ages, genders, experiences, and developmental readiness are now placed in a classroom with 25 to 35 other children. This is much larger than class-size research would support (17 to 22 is recommended for K-2). With one teacher, the classroom is organized using an old industrial model, in which this wildly diverse group of children will receive similar instruction within the allotted time.
This old model was well designed for efficient delivery of instruction in a world in which most students were not expected to finish high school, become great readers or mathematicians, or consider higher education. But today this model is failing our children at greater rates than most adults can imagine.
Children learn best when given instruction that includes a little bit of challenge along with a high degree of success. Early readers should practice reading books in which they already know about 95 percent of the sight words. Higher degrees of frustration cause the young learner to demotivate, give less time and effort to learning tasks, learn less, and misbehave more. Children with less developed skills can quickly disengage from learning even though they have incredible potential to succeed.
The more school-ready students earn positive attention from teachers and parents. Less school-ready students will likely get less positive attention for their efforts to learn, and may discover how to get attention from negative behaviors.
While teachers complain about the pressure to “cover” content, and know which students are struggling and disengaged from important learning, they succumb to the system expectations. Many teachers become expert at delivering lessons, following the script, and covering content. But they lose or fail to develop formative assessment skills which might allow them to carefully observe their students and adjust instruction to meet their individual needs.
Highly anxious to cover all their content expectations, teachers spend less time on building relationships, practicing school behaviors, practicing classroom routines, teaching social skills, or developing classroom culture. Highly anxious teachers help create highly anxious students who do not feel safe or connected to their teachers.
Art, music, time with nature, exercise, play, awareness of beauty, and the development of personal character are considered less important than preparation for state achievement tests. They are not a priority and are seldom discussed within the education community.
By the beginning of fourth grade, the point at which we can accurately predict long-term learning outcomes, only 33 percent of American children are at proficient reading levels (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2010). Only 17 percent of children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are at proficient reading levels. The vast majority of these children are unlikely to become good readers, love to learn, go on to advanced education, or become learners for life. We have institutionalized a pattern of failure which will keep poor children unsuccessful in the information age.
Political and education leaders are outraged as the United States slips to successively lower levels in international comparisons. They call for more standardized testing and harsher evaluation of teachers.
Attempts to improve graduation rates by intervening with ninth-grade students are consistently unsuccessful. Attempts to improve learning outcomes by retaining below-grade-level third-graders are consistently unsuccessful. Students without the experience of early learning success are far more likely to engage in risky behaviors, substance abuse, drop out of school, and find trouble with the law.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff report that 75 percent of high school seniors are not eligible to serve in the military because of poor academic skills, poor physical fitness, or a criminal record. Nationally, only 25 percent of the high school graduates taking the ACT exam met or surpassed the college readiness benchmarks in English, math, reading and science. In Michigan only 18.1 percent met the benchmarks, and among economically disadvantaged Michigan students only 6.6 percent met the benchmarks.
Our recipe has a predictable result. The majority of American children do not become proficient learners in the early grades. The majority of our children do not fall in love with learning. For poor children the rates of learning success are abysmally low. Unsuccessful early learners are consigned to live without the skills that open the doors to opportunity and success. They are systematically prepared to be disengaged learners and low-wage earners.