Imagine that you have just started a new job with a highly reputable employer, along with 30 other new hires. Imagine having begun the month-long new employee training program and discover that all of the other trainees seem to be a step ahead of you in all of the prerequisite skill sets.
As you begin this exercise to not do so casually. Strive to show true empathy so that you actually feel what it would be like to find yourself in such a predicament when all of your peers seem to be doing well. Imagine, also, that the fact that you are struggling is readily apparent to everyone else in the program.
Next, imagine that you have finished the first phase of the program while earning the lowest score in the class. Think about how this would feel. What would be going through your mind?
Would you feel as if you were an integral part of the group or would you feel like an outsider? Dredge your past for a time when you experienced this or something similar. Compare how you felt then with what you are feeling now. Would you feel ready to move on to the next phase of the training or would you feel desperate for a little more time to study or maybe a little more time with the instructor?
Now, as you begin phase 2 of this 5-part program, imagine that any illusions you may have had about this being a fresh start are shattered by the discovery that doing well on this new subject matter requires that you be able to apply the skills, knowledge, and principles that were covered in phase 1. Strive to imagine what it would feel like to discover, as you move through the phases of training, that you are a little further behind at the end of each phase and even less prepared for what is to follow.
Would you feel comfortable in asking the instructor for a little extra time and attention? Would you be willing to share with the instructor just how far behind you are? How about your classmates? Would you feel comfortable asking one of them to help you understand?
Can you feel the sense of panic that would be almost certain to descend upon you? How would you assess your chances of successfully completing the training? After repeated failure, is there a point at which you begin to feel like quitting? Are you excited about the chance to move out onto the shop floor to begin work or is your gut knotting with dread at that prospect?
If you are a public school teacher, how many students in your classroom are living this nightmare, lesson after lesson, subject after subject, grading period after grading period? How many of the students in your school are struggling with this very phenomenon—a phenomenon I like to call the “cycle of failure?” Now, multiply that number by the number of facilities in your school district; in your state; and, finally, multiply that number by the number of stars on our flag.
If we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that the number of struggling students—the number of failing students—is staggering. How many kids does it take before it becomes a national tragedy? When we think about this “cycle of failure” in terms of millions of children in tens of thousands of classrooms, it seems overwhelming. Is it any wonder that public school teachers feel hopeless to do anything about it?
The sad reality of this crisis in public education is that to solve the dilemma and end the crisis, all teachers must do is slow down and give each child the time they need to understand before we ask them to move on to the next lesson. It would be simple except for the fact that slowing down is not part of the expectations placed on American public school teachers.
Our expectations in the present reality of public education is that teachers must move their entire class of students down a predetermined path so that they all arrive at the same time and with the same level of preparation for the standardized competency exams that loom in our not-to-distant future; exams by which teachers and their schools will be held accountable.
The educational process does not account for the individual students who fall off the side of the path and become hopefully lost and makes no provision for attending to their needs. Teachers care very much, however, and they do their best to give these children a little extra time and attention but the pressure to move the students along is relentless.
From a practical perspective, the solution is simple. All we need to do is alter our expectations so that each and every child is to be given however much time they need. Impossible, you say! It is not impossible. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Making such a change from a human engineering perspective is as simple it could be. Once expectations have changed, all that is required are some modifications to the classroom management process.
The problem is not the practicability of such changes but rather the political component.
Somehow we must convince policy makers that each child is a precious resource of incalculable value and that an educational process is dysfunctional if it views struggling children as collateral damage. The bottom line is that our society cannot afford to lose a single child let alone a few million children. We must make certain that every child counts and the only way we can make certain they count is to do so one child at a time.