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STRAIGHT FROM THE CAN! The Post’s ideas for fixing our schools seem to come straight from the can: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 12, 2006

CALLED AWAY: We’ve been called away from our desks on a grave matter of national import. For that reason, we postpone our series on Harris and Halperin. (They also said some things that are accurate.) We return to these vineyards on Monday.

STRAIGHT FROM THE CAN: Yes, it always gets our goat when we read education pieces like this—like Wednesday’s Washington Post editorial on the state of American schools. Reason? We don’t get the sense that the unnamed authors have spent much time inside those schools. The editors offer prescriptions for improving low-income schools—but the prescriptions seem to come straight from the can. Has anyone here ever been in those schools? Sorry, but we don’t get that sense from reading this canned editorial.

How can we improve our low-income schools? Early on, the Post makes a perfectly decent suggestion concerning pre-school education:
WASHINGTON POST (10/11/06): The first opportunity for extra investment in education comes when children are young. That's when they are most malleable and when poor children start to fall behind: Even at age 3, researchers find class-based differences in linguistic and emotional maturity. The federal Head Start program, bolstered by a variety of state preschool programs, has succeeded in reaching many poor 3- and 4-year-olds. In 2001, 49 percent of 4-year-olds whose mothers were high school dropouts attended some type of preschool program, up from 36 percent a decade earlier. But that participation was still way below the 70 percent rate for children of college graduates. And the quality of many preschool programs is poor.
The Post goes on to suggest some ways to improve the “poor quality” of preschool programs. (We can’t vouch for the strength of their judgments.) But when the Post lists ways to improve K-12 schools, our eyes quickly glazed and our limbs grew heavy. Good Lord! Average people could recite this stuff in their sleep:
WASHINGTON POST: Which K-12 investments would be effective? Smaller classes are a leading candidate: A Tennessee experiment that divided pupils into classes of differing size in kindergarten and then returned them to regular-size classes in third grade found benefits from smaller classes that persisted to high school. Improving the quality of teachers is also likely to boost performance, though teacher quality is not necessarily linked to teacher certification. Publicly funded summer school could make a difference. The performance gap between privileged and poor children appears to be linked to the way they spend their summers, with the privileged attending enrichment programs while the poor are underoccupied.
We need smaller classes! We need better teachers! Let’s send poor kids to summer school! Is there someone who couldn’t come up with these notions? Is there someone who thinks this would “work?”

Again, we’ll make some real-world suggestions for K-6 teaching, based on our experience teaching low-income kids from low-literacy backgrounds—kids who may have deficits “in linguistic and emotional maturity by age 3," who may be several years below traditional grade level at the time they hit the fourth grade.

What can we do to help these kids? We can ask the following questions:
1) When they enter kindergarten, is the kindergarten program geared to their actual needs—to the needs of kids who may have deficits “in linguistic and emotional maturity?” Or are they getting the same-old program that those middle-class kids get—a program which may not address their real needs?

2) When they go to first grade, are they given an instructional program geared to their actual skills? Or do they get the same-old same-old—an program that is geared to the skills of their middle-class peers?

3) When they’re in the higher elementary grades, are their teachers able to give them books they can actually read? If fourth- and fifth-graders are reading on second- or third-grade level, can their teacher able give them readable textbooks? Appropriate library books? Or are they handed textbooks on “grade level”—books they simply can’t read and learn from? Are they simply given fewer reading experiences because appropriate books just aren’t available?

4) When they’re in the higher elementary grades, do their teachers have instructional programs to follow (in math, let us say) that are geared to these students’ actual skills? Or do the teachers fumble and flounder, trying to adjust “grade level” programs to the actual skills of their actual kids, who may be years below level?
When we read that Post editorial, we didn’t read a single word you couldn’t have grabbed from some other editorial. To us, it seems to come straight from the can. Struggling children deserve something better—from people who have struggled along with them, from people who have been in their schools.