The Problem Might Be Our Schools—Not Our Students

I recently had an interesting “the chicken or the egg” question put to me: Is the growth in special/remedial education driving down academic achievement in our public schools, or is worsening academic achievement in our public schools driving the increase in the number of students with special/remedial education designations?  It’s a pertinent question because the answer might point the way out of the downward academic spiral too many of our nation’s schools seem to be experiencing.  Although special/remedial education is certainly necessary for some of our students, it is worth asking why the numbers of students needing these services has grown so rapidly over the past few decades.

It must be abundantly clear nearly 30 years past the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report that we need to do much more if we are to improve our public schools than simply tinker around the edges by launching a handful of new programs or giving a flashy new name to the same old thing.  The discouraging academic outcomes at American public schools sometime seem intractable—and the contrast between the performance of our students and those in other nations over the same time period could not be more stark.  Therefore, perhaps the role of America’s special/remedial education programs now merits some examination, particularly as they seem to be a larger and larger component of our nation’s public schools as we have struggled to improve student achievement across the curriculum.

As it stands now, if a student is failing in class or repeatedly acts in a disruptive manner, we don’t simply insist that the student study harder and behave better—that type of thinking is considered hopelessly old fashioned.  Instead, because the premise of special/remedial education is that many failing students are simply not capable of progressing in regular education classrooms, these children are often provided with specialized instruction in smaller classes for all or part of the school day—instruction that typically moves even more slowly than the already glacial pace of instruction in too many of our public schools.  Because this arrangement often puts these students even further behind their peers, remedial classes are likely to be a significant component of the classroom education for these public school students until the day they receive their high school diplomas.

Please understand that I’m not suggesting that anyone in our public schools is deliberately failing to teach our students so as to produce more remedial education jobs; obviously, it is still an open question why we are placing more and more students into remedial education classrooms, and I hope this matter will be rigorously examined at a federal, state, and local level.  However, we must recognize that, as it stands, a lot of education careers now entirely depend on everything in our public schools staying pretty much exactly the way they are—slowly sinking—and turning the ship around when so many of our nation’s remedial educators are earnestly paddling toward the troubled status quo might be a heck of a task if it is determined that spiraling rates of placement in remedial classrooms are driving—rather than solving—the academic and behavioral problems in our public schools.

Indeed, if careful analysis concludes the entrenched systems of remedial education are a root cause of poor academic and behavioral outcomes in our public schools, taxpayers are going to find themselves very much at odds with a huge cohort of talented and motivated teachers and administrators who have invested their entire professional lives in the core belief that many American students are simply incapable—for reasons ranging from race to gender to household income—of learning how to read, write, and compute to the same standards as students in virtually every other industrialized nation.  We can expect, in addition, as school budgets get tight and tighter in the lean and leaner years ahead, to hear a lot of these teachers and administrators passionately arguing to keep the bar as low as possible for our most at-risk children so as to not cause them to drop out—perhaps, out of a sincere desire to help, inadvertently hastening our academic and economic decline in relation to the rest of the world and dooming many students to lives of low achievement and poverty.

Whether or not our students have changed less than the public schools around them, we must remember that whenever a standard is lowered it regrettably tends to stay lowered—and this decrease in the benchmark for earning a high school diploma may harm both our lowest and highest achieving students by making any hard, sustained effort seem silly at best and utterly ridiculous at worst.  Students might legitimately ask themselves why they bothered to stay up until midnight to polish an assignment to perfection when a classmate who did it on the bus that morning received a decent grade just for turning it in?

We often forget that low expectations are as contagious as the common cold, and a system of public education that, with the best of intentions, tacitly encourages a segment of students to do less work or be more lax in their behavior can easily find that standard becoming the stubborn norm throughout the entire student body.  It is difficult to have one set of expectations for one group of your students and a completely different set of expectations for another, so perhaps the best way to help all our students to excel is to encourage everyone to work to their maximum potential on a daily basis.

It is rare to find young people who can raise themselves to productive and positive adulthood without firm and caring adult supervision; this is why we charge responsible adults with the task of establishing boundaries and setting standards.  Failure to hold all students to rigorous standards, even if we often do so from an impulse to help, may ultimately produce too many high school graduates who are prepared for nothing yet expect everything, and now may be the time to carefully examine this issue to see if we need to adjust our thinking regarding remedial education in our public schools.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( March 13, 2011

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