Avoiding Back to the Future and Groundhog Day: Traditions of Reform

Last night I tweeted this to @johnsonmaryj “Statue of Liberty schools are America” in response to her own tweet of a #6wordessay  “Public schools welcome all, teach all.” Larry Ferlazzo, @larryferlazzo picked up that educators on Twitter were generating their own #6wordessay tweets after Michelle Rhee put out a call for what makes a great teacher. Larry subsequently published some of what he considered as “best of” #6wordessay tweets. When I read those tonight, I paired them with a tweet from Scott McLeod, @mcleod, and his post about the “back to the future” proposal in Iowa and other states to fail students who can’t “read” fluently by the end of third grade.

When I saw Mary J.’s and Scott’s tweets, I was reminded that what we do either opens or closes the door to opportunity for each child who walks into our Statue of Liberty schools. Currently, multiple states have initiatives pending to return to the days of failing children in school who do not meet literacy objectives. In most cases, the “powers that be” seem to be pinpointing children around third or fourth grade. Decades-long research shows that labeling children as failures and then holding them back in school is a sure-fire way to not just leave children behind, but to contribute to their truancy, mental health, and discipline problems as they move through school.

It’s been pretty much documented that retaining students who don’t meet achievement benchmarks will increase dropout rates. Period. At the same time,  research is also pretty clear that children who struggle to read and get passed on, social promoted,  from grade to grade despite their literacy disconnects, also continue to have difficulties. They become a different kind of example of high truancy, disciplinary, and, inevitably, dropout rates.

Could it be that in our “holding back” children for their failure to read, we skip the obvious failure in all of this? I believe that eight- and nine-year old children aren’t failures at all. Maybe, just maybe, we ought finally accept responsibility for a system that’s  the real failure, not the kids. I know we educators employ some pretty archaic practices when it comes to determining who gets promoted and who does not, but we haven’t provided much support for educators to do anything much different either.

We average factors into grades that have nothing to do with meeting academic achievement standards. We put a lot of stock in measuring aspects of achievement with quick and dirty tests that tell us little about what kids really know, understand and can do. We choose some standards for success that aren’t what really matters most as indicators of deep learning, but which we can measure efficiently and cheaply. We create curriculum that demands “mile wide, inch deep” coverage and then wonder why we lose kids as we fly through piles of worksheets, scripted lessons, and mind-numbing teaching at the wall.


What’s scary is that this begins in some districts, in some schools, as early as in kindergarten. Then, when some children, as they always have done, check out, can’t make sense of what’s being taught, or find themselves lost amidst a stream of letters and sounds, we sit around table assigning blame and determining whether the child will be assigned the trauma of being passed on – or the trauma of being failed. We pick who will get held back in a grade, creating a role for children in a macabre educational version of the movie Groundhog Day – children who go through the motions of the same curriculum, same worksheets, same teaching, and same tests with little attention to how they learn and their personal needs for learning support.

The reality in all this comes down to this. Our schools are the Statue of Liberty for America’s children. We take every child who walks through our doors, regardless of handicap, language of origin, race, religion, ethnicity, economic background, gender, or any variable which differentiates one from another. That isn’t true in some countries to which we are compared; countries such as China or India where children may be excluded from school or never get access to school for one reason or another. It’s also not true in many of the elite private or charter schools that exist today in communities across this country.

I’ve also not seen a five-year old enter public school with the idea in her head that she’s going to become a failure. Most novice teachers also don’t enter the profession with the idea that they’ll be failures at teaching. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, some children fail to learn to read well enough to succeed in school and some teachers fail to learn how to teach. The system fails both.

Is there a solution? We can look to other countries that don’t have similar problems. Finland figures prominently in the twitter verse, but it’s not the only success story out there.

We know that the most highly educated nations in the world understand the power of safety nets for young children, beginning long before kindergarten. Children in those countries benefit from a family support package that educates parents about parenting and provides children with services of health care, decent nutrition, early childhood stimulus learning, and preschool.  It makes a difference. Countries with a commitment to educating all children well level the playing field of poverty and erase the face of poverty in school. When I asked colleagues on #Finnedchat if they fail kids, I had to explain what I meant. They said, “Our kids learn to read. It’s our job.” They had no concept of failing a grade level because of not reading well.

We don’t have a commitment in this country to comprehensive educational safety nets for young children to increase the likelihood they will enter kindergarten on the starting line, not behind it. Instead, we accept that the children who enter our schools will include a certain percentage who will never catch up, even if we do get them over the multiple choice test hurdles of every state in the union. For those who don’t, we consign them to repeating a grade or two or three. Or, we  move them up through the system with little sense of control over their capability to learn and a lot of what we call remediation support. Either way, we fail children. I don’t think it has to be that way. As Bill Glasser, the creator of reality, control, and choice theory once said to a room of educators including me, ” I hesitate to give this advice to a paying audience, but if you are doing something and it isn’t working,  consider whether you should stop doing it.”

Unfortunately, we’ve stopped very little of the things we know don’t work in education. Instead, we repackage our traditions with different labels under the guise of new programs as we continue to repeat our past. When politicians repackage reform, it’s simply another way of  doing what we’ve always done. The unfortunate downside of reform is we keep getting what we always got. So, we set ourselves up to pass laws that ban social promotion, dooming some children to fail in our schools. Then we act surprised at all the negative impacts of retention already documented in stacks of research from prior cycles of using the same strategy from different chapters in the history of American education. (At least, if it occurs again, it will fuel a current crop of graduate students with more opportunities to confirm prior studies of the effects of failure on young people in school. )

So in the spirit of not just pointing out that we need to stop doing some things, we should at least pause to consider what we know works. If we did these things and stuck to them, our nation and children would both benefit:

1) Create and fund a family support safety net that begins before a child is born and continues onward throughout school – nutrition, health care, family leave, quality child care,

2) Fund preschool learning to jump start  playful, high interest, high vocabulary-building academic background opportunities and “doing school” skills- the kind of early learning experiences that parents know help a child enter school on or in front of the starting line, parents such as the President of the United States who enrolled his own children in a “money does make a difference” private school in Washington, D.C. and Rahm Emanuel who did the same in his return to Chicago.

3) Revolutionize teacher education so college students actually apply “how children learn” neuro-research in simulation centers and practitioners’ learning spaces as they learn to set up learning situations that make sense and ensure that children get all the right “verb” opportunities. In doing so, we must select for pre-service educators who have the capacity to inspire young people to engage, process, acquire, use, create, analyze, choose, imagine, wonder, and then take learning with them for a lifetime. The medical schools are doing this, why not education schools?

UVA medical school learning studio

4) Elect political leaders, regardless of affiliation, who understand that education is not cheap and, neither are the outcomes of cheaply funding education. We need to attract those with the capability to teach well to enter and stay in the profession- not merit pay which we know doesn’t work but simply pay commensurate with doing the most important job in America- teaching. We need to reboot the profession and our professionals. Our kids need access to top-notch teachers, the learning tools to accomplish the contemporary work of “search, connect, collaborate,” and the time necessary to learn whether it’s less, more or about the same. Needing more or less time should not come with penalties as it often does today.

5) Expand the concept of literacy as the acts of “getting information into and out of learners’ minds. We know that even though a majority of children learn to read with comprehension and fluency, America reads on average somewhere around a sixth grade reading level. We need to use the comprehensive literacy research that exists and is continuously evolving to inform practice, professional learning, teaching and learning expectations, and structures that are time dependent.  We need to acknowledge and address that the lack of high quality early learning leads to some children failing at literacy, not because of their lack of capability, but because of the system’s failure. We need to realize that some children have such significant lifespan literacy disconnects they must have accessibility tools (TTS and SST) to enter the world of literacy.

Of course, I could generate change orders for public education to fill more than a few blog posts, but listing those has little meaning unless we follow Glasser’s advice and stop doing what’s not working.  I appreciate that Scott McLeod and others at least recognize and are resisting the legal imposition of retention of students as one of those traditions of education that’s a system failure. It’s a long way from the full scope of what we need to do to imagine an education system that works for kids and teachers, one whose members resist the urge to sustain conventions and traditions because they’re comfortable and known.

Challenging the current push to return to a future of holding kids back in school is a start. Thank you, Scott.


About pamelamoran

Educator in Virginia, creating 21st c community learning spaces for all kinds of learners, both adults and young people. I read, garden, listen to music, and capture photo images mostly of the natural world. My posts represent a personal point of view on topics of interest.
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One Response to Avoiding Back to the Future and Groundhog Day: Traditions of Reform

  1. This totally resonates with me. Groundhogs Day — it’s the perfect (sadly) metaphor for the same old educational reforms that do nothing.

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