The Biggest Challenge in Education

Helping struggling students before it’s too late.

About six months ago, I read an article detailing the academic struggles of a second-grade student and the steps his mother was taking to help him. Among his troubles were misbehavior in the classroom and poor academic performance, particularly in reading, where he was a full grade level behind. I was thrilled to see that the boy’s mother was deeply involved in his education and trying to get him on track. After all, we know that once children slip behind in school, it can be hard for them to catch up. A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation discusses the importance of students being able to read on grade level by the end of third grade, and the long-term consequences for society when they cannot. And in a 2009 Detroit Free Press op-ed, the late Myles Brand, former president of both Indiana University and the NCAA, explained the necessity of early-childhood learning succinctly and powerfully:

“It is estimated that 90 percent of brain development occurs in the first three years of a child’s life. Children that are unprepared for kindergarten have a 10 percent chance of being able to read in the first grade. If you cannot read at grade level in the first grade, you have a 12 percent chance of reading at grade level in the fourth grade. And if you can’t read at grade level in the fourth grade, you have only a 2 percent chance of graduating from college.”

To put the percentages above into real numbers, only 16 of every 1,000 kids who are unprepared for kindergarten will graduate from college. Some states and districts, in an effort to prevent this from happening, are evaluating students prior to kindergarten so they know where students need to be supported in their academic and social development. Chicago Public Schools, for example, recently rolled out a kindergarten readiness assessment that was administered by students’ preschool teachers at the end of the school year.

Of course, it remains to be seen what will be done with the results of such assessments. A shortcoming of most of our country’s public school systems is that when a child is struggling academically, interventions do not exist to provide swift, targeted, and overwhelming support to help that student and ensure she or he doesn't fall behind again. Such support is not present in part because we as a nation have not been able to agree on an answer to the following question: What should parents expect from schools when their children fall behind in school?

This question has not been answered for two reasons. One is that we still argue about how much responsibility rests with schools when students come to school unprepared or begin to struggle at some point. Many people believe that parents, rather than schools, should be held responsible. They may think it sad that a child was plopped in front of a television set from ages 0 to 5 instead of being read to, or does not get help with homework from an adult each night, but they do not think it is the school’s job to catch that child up. Schools work with limited resources, so if extra time, energy, or money is spent on unprepared or struggling students, that means less is spent on their own children. The other side of this argument, though, is that unprepared and unsupported students will walk through the schoolhouse door every day whether or not they are given extra help. Choosing to ignore the struggles of these students is to invite frustration, disengagement, and misbehavior, which will negatively impact all students.

The second reason this support is not present has to do with competing ideas about child development. While some parents and educators are in favor of assessing children and providing interventions at early ages, others argue that some children just might need more time to develop than others. In the first case, we risk over-assessing, over-analyzing, and over-remediating children, and turning them off to learning and school. In the latter case, we risk waiting too long for students to “get it” on their own, leading to students being discouraged because of how far behind they have fallen. And we know from the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman that the longer we wait to intervene with struggling students, the costlier and less effective those interventions become.

Returning to the title of this piece, how do we address the challenge of helping struggling students? There isn’t one answer to this question, but there are some things on which most reasonable people would likely agree:

First, all parents must be made aware that the years prior to preschool are the most important years of a child’s life in terms of brain development. It is a time when children build their language skills, so they should be read to often and exposed to many and varied words. And up until age two, they should not watch television. (The University of Michigan Health System’s website has a wonderful fact sheet and guidelines on television and children.) These early years hold the key to strong literacy skills, which, as I’ve documented in past columns for GOOD and True/Slant, are vital to succeeding in school and in life.

Next, parent involvement needs to be encouraged by schools, but in a different way than in the past. Parent-teacher conferences and other school-based activities are important, but the parents have their biggest impact inside the home. They therefore need to know what specific actions will help their children outside of the school day, and what effect that will have on their children’s success. It is not enough to say, “Help your child with her homework”; that action must be accompanied by an explanation of why it matters, in language that parents can understand. A critical element of this communication is schools’ awareness of parents’ life circumstances. For example, in a community where many parents have crowded living quarters or work multiple jobs, it may not be feasible for them to consistently provide their children with a quiet place to study or to read to them each night before bed (which are common tips given by schools to parents). Schools therefore should provide various ways that parents can implement these suggestions. These might include pairing up with a classmate to do homework and alternating houses each night, or having an older sibling read to a younger child.

Finally, intervention systems should be put in place so that all students—regardless of parent involvement—receive the targeted assistance they need. These should be focused on the early grades; students must be helped at age 7 or 9, not at age 15 or 17. Response to Intervention (RTI) is one system that is becoming popular in schools and has the support of one of the most respected experts in the area of early literacy. Whether it’s RTI or something else, we have an obligation to implement effective intervention systems and to ensure that struggling students are helped as early as possible. It is a big challenge, but it is one we have to embrace if we want all of our nation’s young people to succeed.

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Julian Meehan

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