On The Premise That All Kids Can Learn

I am of the opinion that American presidents have not exhibited a great deal of knowledge of the real issues that face public education in recent decades.  They each exhibit varying degrees of astute expertise in other fields, but no recent Commander In Chief has ushered in anything close to an era of great growth or even positive change in our country’s schools.  Education gets discussed seemingly less often than the economy and foreign affairs, which may be telling regarding the priorities of both candidates and the voters who elect them.  Education directly impacts the economy and foreign affairs of the next generations.  Why is it not a hot topic?

I distinctly recall an exact quote from one of the presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the fall of 2000.  It stands out in my memory for two reasons.  Number one, it was one of those rare, quick moments when a question regarding education was asked at a televised debate, and number two, the response from one of the candidates was, shall we say, a red flag regarding what was to come. The question was, if the federal government is only responsible for a small percentage (6%) of public education funding, how could you encourage any meaningful change as president?  Both candidates answers were vague and unsatisfying, but the stand-out phrase came from the actual president-to-be.  He made a reference to a school in Texas for “at-risk children,” and then defined the clientele as “children who can’t learn.”  Here’s the transcript.  The quote comes about two-thirds the way through the debate.  I think then Governor Bush intended to use the comment to imply that the label “at-risk” meant, somehow, that this population of students were seen as hopeless.  The reference, though, seemed so bizarre, so incorrect, inappropriate and wrong that I cringed when I heard it, almost as much as I cringed when Vice President Gore more or less concurred in his rebuttal.  Neither candidate really knew what they were talking about.  I had no TV at the time, so I was listening on the radio.  That phrase, “children who can’t learn,” is forever tattooed in my brain.

Needless to say, the irony of the title of the Bush Administration’s famous bipartisan supported but equally errant legislation regarding public education I will also not ever forget.  It was called, “No Child Left Behind.”  And we know how that all turned out.

It’s hard for me to blame the Bush administration for the colossal failure of NCLB, because almost everyone in congress supported it.  Ted Kennedy was a major proponent and co-sponsor.  Rather, what it tells me is politicians at the federal level really did not grasp the issues facing public education.  It’s hard to believe that was 16 years ago.  It’s also hard to believe that much has changed in the minds of federal politicians.  This fall, our presidential candidates will once again talk about education, and they’ll make reference to teacher accountability, teacher salaries, school choice, college tuition, and probably at-risk youth.  They’ll also probably talk about how parents need to do their part in the home.  It is unlikely we will hear much about what really needs to happen to encourage innovation and excellence in the learning experiences that our schools provide.

All kids can learn.  I’ve been asked to talk about that at a number of job interviews. “Tell us what that means to you,” they say.  It’s hard to be totally frank at a job interview; you want to be positive, forward thinking, on your best game.  But that phrase irks me, because to me, it would be just as fruitful an inquiry if the question was, “Tell us what the phrase, ‘all kids can breathe,’ means to you.”  Who out there thinks there are kids who cannot learn?  Any child with a brain that is receiving oxygen and blood flow can learn, but each has different capabilities and limitations. And that is where we struggle in our teaching every bit as much as those “at-risk children” struggle in their learning.  The only reason any of our students are academically “at-risk” is because our schools are at-risk.  Notice I said our schools and did not say our teachers, because I firmly believe “all teachers can teach,” just some have different capabilities and limitations.   

Our schools are at risk of not providing learning opportunities that are meaningful enough to make a difference in the lives of the children who attend them.   See previous posts from The Unrealized Maine Classroom for more details.  This is the truth at every level and in every category of public education.  Our goals need to be more focused on how to inspire children to love their learning and less on how to get them to show proficiency.  Let me remind you I am not at all opposed to using standards as a guideline for our teaching, I am a proponent of the Common Core, and I am in favor of a reasonable amount of testing to help us determine our successes and our areas of need.  Data is good, but it is not our God.  

Earlier this week I wrote an email to one of the principals I work with in my district expressing how I’d really like to oversee a greater amount of district math data this year.  I want to see it all, the curriculum interim assessment data, the MEA data, the NWEA data, all of it.  But in no way do I want anyone, anywhere to feel self-conscious of this data, to feel driven by this data, to fear the data or obsess over it. And I don’t plan to, either.  I just want to look at it and learn from it.  I want others to as well.  But then there’s this:  Teachers have too much to do every day, too much to worry about, too much to plan for, too much to teach, too much to assess.  Let them focus on innovation and excellence.  Let them devote the vast majority of their energy to inspiring their students and planning lessons that ignite and grow their brains, rather than just tax them.

I could go on a riff about that word, tax, and how nobody likes to do taxes, just like nobody likes to waste their time doing long sets of boring math problems, but it might get complicated and end up bringing me over the 2,000 word mark, which has been a problem with me in the past.  So I’ll just suffice it to say there’s a reason we don’t like to do certain things.  We don’t like to waste money, and we don’t like to waste time. Americans would be so much happier if they all felt good about how their taxes were being appropriated, and children would likewise feel better about learning if learning did not feel like such a waste of time.  There.

So what about those kids who struggle to learn?  What about those kids who are being raised by parents who cannot, for whatever reason, provide for them as much as they’d like to?  I think of single parents who work a lot of hours and are simply too tired to be an animated, loving parent at the end of the day.  Of course who knows what other factors might play into any struggling child’s home life, but hard-working, over-tired single parents, and double parents, are certainly very common. Sometimes these children spend more time in front of a screen than others, sometimes they are malnourished, sometimes they are even abused.  These children are often more difficult to inspire in the classroom, and there are so many reasons this is so.  Maybe they are behind the others in their ability to grasp grade-level concepts and are self-conscious, or even feel hopeless.  Maybe they are under the impression they can’t learn, so why bother?  Maybe they are over-tired themselves, or hungry/hangry, unfocused, depressed, unwound, or any combination of the above. They are difficult to engage.

The reality is we have to engage them, or make every single effort possible to do so. And where that starts is in the general classroom, before identification for special services or interventions, before diagnosis of learning disorders or psychological debilitations.  If learning in the classroom setting is special, engaging, inspiring, something to look forward to, then addressing the needs of struggling learners becomes something we can begin to work toward.  In a less-than-inspiring or less-than-engaging academic environment, everyone becomes a struggling learner. When that is the reality, who stands out?  It’s hard to tell.  Kids can get lost that way. I bet a lot of fifth grade teachers can tell you about a time a student came along and demonstrated extremely high needs, but had no record of special education referrals. They thought, How is it possible this poor child never received the attention he/she needed until now?

I wish every politician understood this phenomenon.  I firmly believe that if there is a crisis in public education it is that teachers do not have the flexibility and resources to produce and facilitate learning experiences that engage and inspire their students. Without that key ingredient, our schools will always be at-risk.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.