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 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 childcare of lesser quality. Poor children are more likely to end up on the short end of experiences which support school readiness.
Some children enter school without school readiness skills simply because of normal variations in development. For example, most boys are slower to develop language skills, visual motor skills, and social skills than typical girls. But once they arrive at school, the race to keep up with instruction has begun.
Even in the early grades most of our American schools are 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.
Our curriculum-driven model was well designed for efficient delivery of instruction in a world (1910-30) in which most students were not expected to finish high school, become great readers or mathematicians, or consider higher education. Schools were intended to teach a few basic skills and sort out a small percentage of students who would go on for advanced learning. But today this same model is failing and damaging our children more 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% 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.
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. Children with less developed skills can quickly disengage from learning even though they have incredible potential to succeed.
Teachers are held strictly accountable for covering all the grade-level-content-expectations in their lesson plans. District assessments at the end of each quarter further pressure teachers to cover all content with all children, whether they are ready or not. Some schools require that teachers write the content expectations of the day on the board, so that visiting administrators can see if they are spending time on the scheduled content.
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 blame state and federal regulators, even though there is no mandate that local districts must require coverage of non-viable grade level content 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.
As students move to each higher grade, the annual content expectations increase. The pace and the pressure increase. Students spending time within a highly successful instructional zone are more engaged and learn at much higher rates. Students who are frustrated continue to disengage. The difference in reading levels and math skills between successful and less-successful students continues to increase.
By the beginning of fourth grade, the point at which we can accurately predict long-term learning outcomes, only 33% of American children are at proficient reading levels (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2010). Only 20% 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.
In upcoming blog posts, Dr. Sornson will describe steps to build an effective early learning success initiative.