These words were shouted at the great Shoeless Joe Jackson when news of the 1919 Black Sox scandal hit the press. Shoeless Joe’s fans did not want to believe that their star could have been involved in throwing the 1919 World Series between Jackson’s Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds.
As we prepare for the 2017/2018 school year it is business as usual for both private and public schools throughout the U.S. Having made no substantive changes in the education process, we can expect the same disappointing outcomes that we have seen in previous years, for as long as any of us can recall. Sure, there are many schools where kids do well and this lulls us into a false sense of security that all is well with public education. However, in schools serving large populations of disadvantaged kids, a disproportionate percentage of whom are black or other minorities, are failing in great numbers. This is an American tragedy of historic proportions and as a fan of public school teachers, I do not want to believe that they will permit this American tragedy to continue. These are children who will suffer their whole lives because we are not willing to change what we do and how we teach.
“Say it ain’t so, teachers!”
Beginning now and over the next several weeks, a whole new class of five and six year-olds will be starting Kindergarten just as others have done in the past. Wherever their public schools may be, they will be greeted by professional teachers who will give their best effort on behalf of their students—our nation’s children. The fact that there is a cavernous disparity in terms of the academic preparedness of the children who will be arriving for their first day of school will not alter the teaching plans that have been developed and approved to help prepare these boys and girls for the first grade.
People underestimate how much of an adverse impact this disparity has on the academic performance of these children. Some of the more advanced students are already reading, can count and maybe do some basic arithmetic. Students on the other end of the academic preparedness continuum may not know or be able to recognize the letters of the alphabet and may not know numbers, colors, or shapes. The challenge to get such a diverse population of students ready to move on to first grade by the end of the school year is formidable. Fortunately, in most states, teachers need not yet worry about high stakes testing, which adds greatly to the pressure to move kids quickly.
Kindergarten teachers do their best to prepare their students for first grade but giving each and every student the time and attention they need in order to learn is neither a priority nor an expectation against which teacher performance will be evaluated. In classrooms where all students are relatively well-prepared, the year will go smoothly. In classrooms where few, if any, are well-prepared things will not be so easy and teachers will struggle to give each child the attention they require. There are just too many of them. When they do move on to first grade, this latter population of students will be as ill-prepared to meet first-grade expectations as they were when they began Kindergarten.
By the third grade when high stakes testing rears its ugly head, the number of students who are struggling will have grown and the results of their first competency exams will reflect that lack of preparedness. Already, there will be many students who are beginning to give up on themselves because they are not learning to succeed, they are learning to fail.
Three years later, when these kids arrive at middle school, the majority will have already stopped trying and will have lost hope. Don’t take my word for it. Pull up the websites of any state’s department of education and you will find that in poor urban and rural school districts, roughly 75 percent of black, middle school students will have been unable to pass both math and English language arts components of that state’s competency exams. In those same schools you will often see that as many as 50 percent of white kids are unable to pass both math and English language arts components.
What you will find in these schools is a cultural disdain for education that transcends both racial and economic boundaries. By the time these kids move from middle school to high school the one lesson they have learned best is that they are unable to learn and that learning is not worth the effort. Let me rephrase that statement. This is not a lesson they have learned on their own, it is the lesson they have been taught simply because the education process has allowed them to fail. We allowed it because teachers were unable to give these kids the time and attention they require and because those same teachers were unwilling to shout out at the tops of their lungs that what they are being asked to do does not work for disadvantaged kids.
Is it any wonder that education reformers are essentially abandoning public schools in our nation’s distressed communities in favor of charter schools? It is unfortunate that reformers lack the insight to recognize that they are making the same mistakes as those made by the leaders of underperforming public schools. At present, charter schools are no more successful in meeting the needs of disadvantaged kids than any other school.
Now, ask yourself how we can go from 25 to 50 percent of middle school students unable to pass state competency exams in math and English language arts to 90+ percent graduation rates from the high schools to which these middle school students will be going. If you think we were able, somehow, to turn these students around during four years of high school, then think again. It would take an extraordinary effort on the part of teachers and students, with the full support of parents, to make up in four years what these kids were unsuccessful at learning during their first nine years of school. Most teachers would be willing to make that effort but that is not what they are being asked to do; it is not the way the education process has been designed to work.
Ninety percent of these young men and women will leave high school, after four years, with a diploma in hand but, for many, it is a meaningless piece of paper. The real world in which these young adults must now make their way is unforgiving and intolerant of shoddy effort and performance. These young people will be confronted with the stark realization that they are unqualified for all but the most menial jobs and they will find this to be true whether they seek work in civilian life, or seek to enlist in the Armed Services.
And, we wonder why education reformers have lost faith in our nation’s public schools. As long as public school superintendents, principals, teachers, and advocates are unwilling to open their eyes, hearts, and minds to the reality that is happening around them, reformers will continue to work, with great zeal, to put public schools out of business. If we allow that to happen the tragedies that the poor and minorities endure, today, will pale in comparison to the consequences of a world in which a quality education is not even available to them. Ours will have become an elitist society and there will be precious little any of us can do about.
Say it ain’t so, Joe!