Contributed by Ronald F. Bernard
On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND (NCLB).
As an experienced English language, science teacher and Dean in both private and public schools, I believe that one of the first things we need to do in support of any educational reform movement is to determine the answers to two obvious questions, "WHO is it that we are currently leaving behind in our schools?" And, "WHY is this happening?"
If we could answer those questions, we would then, in my view, be able to draw a tentative map that might lead us to the discovery of substantial riches among our children, treasure that today lies hidden somewhere within the process of universal education both in the United States and throughout the industrialized world.
The kind of testing we have done internationally in public school classrooms during the past decade begins to answer the question of "WHO is being LEFT BEHIND." It is becoming uncomfortably apparent in the developed world that in several significant ways the great majority of our children are being LEFT BEHIND.
In the United States, the problem is even more severe than in many other nations. As measured on international tests, currently even America's highest achieving high school graduates have difficulty competing with the average high school graduate of other industrialized nations in science and mathematics, despite the fact that the U.S. allocates more money per capita for education than any other country on Earth.
Fully 30% of all American high school graduates, presumably its best students, who go on to college, must enroll in remedial courses during freshman and sophomore years to firm up basic skills, particularly in the area of English language proficiency.
American college undergraduate experiences have also been compromised in major ways in order to accommodate the influx of poorly prepared high school graduates. (On many U.S. college campuses, it is the widely held belief that a masters degree is now equivalent to the bachelors degree of forty years ago.)
In order to address what can be termed the "educational crisis" in America and elsewhere, I believe we must begin to change the one-size-fits-all school models that were adopted one hundred years ago for the purpose of quality standardization. By employing new methods and materials congruous with each student considered as a unique individual, we will have taken a major step toward once again leading the world's children to a more informed and prosperous future.
For example, many of the world's best students have tactile or aural learning styles and strengths. Since many of the courses taught in pre-university schools are delivered with a heavy bias toward the visual, the vast majority of children with tactile and aural learning orientations have routinely FALLEN BEHIND in these classes. Tactile learners especially tend to grow weary in the visually oriented classroom, and consequently often perform well below levels that should be natural given their inherent capabilities.
Many of our potentially brightest lights are becoming massively negative statistics as a result of our failure to tailor each academic experience to the individual student.
However, even though visual learners typically outperform tactile and aural learners in our pre-university classrooms, the overall academic achievements of even visual learners are being dramatically compromised.
To focus on the United States exclusively for a moment, early in the 20th century, America adopted the then popular German/Prussian instruction model, the so called "bell and buzzer" method. This decision was heavily influenced by John Dewey, and William Harris, the first superintendent of public instruction, both of whom having been significantly influenced by German/Prussian educators and philosophers.
To quote from the letters of Albert Einstein who was subject to the German preparatory model himself, "It is in fact little short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not already completely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. It is a grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. I believe that one could even deprive a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness if one could force it with a whip to eat continuously whether it were hungry or not."
Dr. Einstein on many occasions suggested that for a full year after graduating from the "bell and buzzer" schools, he was unable to consider academic studies of any kind. He needed the time to "recover" intellectually and emotionally from the experience.
Internationally, parents give voice to the concept that EVERY CHILD has a natural right, and, most would posit, a serious obligation, to develop natural talents, to journey toward the highest levels of achievement.
Unfortunately, this message is often given short shrift in pre-university schools, as children are addressed en masse, herded daily from cell to cell, and segregated by age as if they were fruit that ripen on the tree at the same time and in the same way.
Our children are consistently exposed to a sort of Pavlovian environment, with klaxons reinforcing the notion that nothing is important enough to pursue for more than one hour at a time. Said differently, instruction methods in our classrooms too frequently are adopted irrespective of students' interests, skill levels, aptitudes and learning styles.
All of this is done, of course, in the name of quality standardization. However, as the majority of veteran teachers will attest, adopting materials and methods before knowing who the children to be instructed are is a formula for creating a common denominator rather than individual excellence.
Our children are consistently being LEFT BEHIND because it is a natural human tendency to withdraw energy from efforts that are being frustrated. In too many instances this results in the tragedy of wasted talents, enthusiasms and, ultimately, lives.
In all fairness, system standardization may have been forced on many leaders at the top of the educational and political hierarchies in order for them to be able to deliver legally required statistics. In addition, standardization may make it easier for educational bureaucracies to deflect and defend charges of disparate opportunity among various segments of a population. However, we must ask what standardization has done overall for and to our children?
Recognizing diversity, and using that knowledge to advantage students with differing strategies becomes impossible in a climate such as we have created in many of our schools.
As many pre-university publicly supported instructors will acknowledge, any attempt by a teacher at furthering the development of a particular student by offering or not offering him services identical to those presented to the next child has the potential of becoming the target of serious parental criticism.
As industrialized societies, we seem to wish our schools to perpetuate differences and commonalities simultaneously. We want to celebrate and cling to our differences, our diversity, outside the classroom, but within our schools, personalized consideration aimed at addressing differences has become fraught with the most serious kinds of dangers. As a result, we continue to treat all children the same, offering the same curricula, the same methods to all, while continually lowering the quality of the overall public educational experience.
Standardization in the classroom, that is, painting all canvases with the same brush in the name of fairness, has had a deadening effect on improving educational offerings.
Stated in a more positive way, the most effective method of teaching any subject is to begin by knowing who the individual students are, and then, using this knowledge, adapting curriculum and methods to the individual students rather than blindly adopting curriculum at the administrative level and imposing that on any child who happens to venture too near a particular classroom on an arbitrarily chosen day.
It really is not very difficult to discover who students are, and to adapt teaching methods and materials to them.
Each school year, Linda Christas recommends that all schools begin by administering a simple version of a Holland Evaluation to each student. This kind of evaluation gives the student an opportunity to tell her teacher what she, the student, believes she does well; what her interests are; where her dreams abide.
For example, if we have a young man in an English course who believes himself to be mechanically inclined as reflected in his enthusiasm involving the repair of machinery, or the building of things using metal or wood, that tells the teacher that he needs to look for ways of helping that student to involve his tactile senses during their journey together.
For example, touching the page, using the index finger to scan sentences, pressing firmly on the page with the hands, all will assist this tactilely gifted student to enjoy, understand and absorb many multiples more of the material than he would using a visually dominant method of instruction.
It is important along this same line to offer such a student well-written pieces that play into his tactile strengths. For instance, it may be more natural and more effective for the young tactile learner to practice effective language usage through the reading of material that describes mechanical designs, as opposed to assigning that student a play written in seventh century English that is nearly one-hundred percent irrelevant to his world.
The list of Western tactile learners who were disadvantaged while in visually oriented schools is impressive. We find Thomas Edison, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Albert Einstein, and Sir Isaac Newton in this group. (It is said anecdotally that Newton, on more than one occasion, categorically stated that, if he could build a model of something, he could understand it. If not, he could not.)
Another kind of learner often disadvantaged in a visually dominant classroom is the child with an aural learning style. While usually not as severe as the disadvantages accruing to tactile learners, aural learners must be accommodated through designing curricula that will allow them to lead with their auditory strengths.
For example, with an aural learner, retention is often improved if, in her mind's eye, she silently reads material as if she were presenting it to an audience. If she can consciously hear the words, an aurally oriented student will not only understand much more of what she is reading, but she will begin to enjoy the reading process. Assigning an aurally gifted student projects involving music is a marvelous tool in our language classes. Some of the finest modern poetry can be found in the most unlikely places. Our children are listening to the poetry of popular icons anyway. Why not take advantage of that reality, as opposed to attempting to convince young people that they are foregoing essential wisdom by not mastering the works of John Milton.
Focusing on the West for a moment, it may be comforting to school administrators across the land that Western culture is being furthered by insisting that high school students read Donne or Shakespeare, but this lockstep brand of cultural orientation has the potential to desperately handicap teachers in classrooms with children who are most in need of learning modern standard English.
Stated differently, the Prussian teaching model that John Dewey favored and that Albert Einstein rejected doesn't work well for a people who have internalized the message that each child is precious, each person unique. Forced top-down curriculum design and execution continually places the genius of the child at a disadvantage.
To sum up: It has been our experience at Linda Christas that there isn't a classroom teacher anywhere who looks into her mirror each morning and asks herself how best she can disadvantage her students that particular day. The overwhelming majority of teachers passionately share President Bush's desire to make certain every child graduates from his educational sojourn with the skills necessary to enjoy life long success.
If we as parents and as a society are determined not to LEAVE OUR CHILDREN BEHIND, we must begin by taking into account who the individual students in our classrooms are, and then empowering teachers to use materials and methods that reward each child for a job well done, excellence made possible by recognizing and capitalizing on every student's strengths, every student's genius.