Jacob has chafed in 8th grade math for the last two days, bewildered by the Pythagorean Theorem. Friday he will almost certainly fail the weekly quiz. The week before he couldn’t solve equations by graphing and he failed that quiz. His struggle is not unique to math. He can’t identify key themes in To Kill a Mockingbird nor retell the basic plot. In science he can’t diagram the water cycle and in history, when asked to write an in-class essay explaining the main reason for the fall of Rome, he produces five superficial sentences. But Jacob does not have a learning disability. He is not impaired. He just isn’t close to the cognitive developmental level our educational system designates for 8th graders.
Two consequences flow from Jacob’s predicament. One is he is impeded from growing academically because instead of processing subject material his brain constantly hits a wall. Two, he suffers tremendous pain. He is in a continual silent crisis. His teachers are aware, but busy managing 29 other students, they feel powerless. They also adhere to the dominant instructional paradigm that says if a student does not meet an objective standard, he fails. And so the teachers reluctantly place the letter F on Jacob’s report card.
What can we do to remediate the situations of the Jacobs in our schools? Are any schools addressing the problem at all now? Or is Jacob destined to be the child that No Child Left Behind forgot about?
The root of the problem is that schools work under the mistaken guiding assumption that students should be grouped academically by age. The theory goes that in an age cohort, variation of skill and experience exists within a limited enough range that all members of the group should be able to access and master the curriculum. More advanced students may be able to succeed quickly and independently, while less advanced students may require supplemental resources and the skilled intervention of a teacher.
Jacob is in some ways fortunate because in the last 50 years American society has adopted the philosophy that all students have the right to succeed. Before World War II it was assumed that not everyone would make it. Schooling was a winnowing process, with those who couldn’t master the curriculum being shunted into vocational education. And even within the core academic program there was an inequitable hierarchy with students designated as lowered skilled tracked into inferior classes. While tracking still exists, along with great controversy, public education policy is now theoretically committed to the goal that all students master their grade level skills. Despite its many flaws, the No Child Left Behind legislation passed during the Clinton presidency and continued under President Bush was actually progressive in this regard.
The massive problem, however, is that to achieve such a lofty goal, instructional practice (not to mention how schools are run generally) must change dramatically. And in some ways it has. As public education policy has evolved to embrace success for those at all academic levels, a corresponding pedagogy has evolved that attempts to meet the needs of students who cannot master the curriculum through standard instruction in a class of 25 (or 35 plus in many public schools). The greatest beneficiary of special needs instruction are students with designated learning disabilities who are legally entitled to receive supplemental support under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In many private and public schools there is a learning specialist who can offer one on one help. But since most students unable to master the curriculum in a standard set up like Jacob are not learning disabled, teachers must find alternatives. One is differentiated instruction. Here, the teacher modifies a basic lesson plan according to the diverse skill levels of the students. With the Pythagorean theorem lesson that baffled Jacob there is the conventional pen and paper approach that the conspicuous achievers receive, and at least one alternative approach that makes the lesson accessible to struggling students. The lower-skilled student might work with a computer-based lesson that provides gradual step by step guidance and creative imaging of right triangles. A key component of differentiated instruction is the practice of scaffolding. Just as a physical scaffold is a support structure that allows someone to reach a place they otherwise could not access, instructional scaffolding provides a cognitive support mechanism to make curriculum more accessible. So, instead of simply asking a student to research and write a paragraph arguing a point about what caused Rome to fall, the teacher might supply a pre-selected accessible text for the research and a graphic organizer with titled boxes for the student to fill in with causes of the empire’s decline. Some critics would argue that this kind of support dumbs down the curriculum and fails to maintain proper standards. But skillfully scaffolded curriculum still demands that students demonstrate mastery of the core skills and curriculum.
There are unfortunately two essential problems with differentiated instruction. One, it is extremely difficult for a teacher to do effectively enough to reach all students. But more fundamentally, teachers simply lack the time to do it. When I taught public high school I had five classes averaging 30 students each and often three separate subjects. I often taught 12th grade AP English, 9th grade English and Psychology. So I was already writing three lesson plans a day. To differentiate any of these lessons would effectively add a fourth. Much as I wanted to do it, I balked. I was already practicing triage. Between designing lessons, grading work, calling parents and helping run school programs, let alone the 25 hours of base classroom time, I was already working 60 hours a week. And I was not unusual.
In Jacob’s case it is questionable whether the instruction can even be differentiated down to his level. Jacob tests at three years below his grade level in reading. Is it possible for any instructional approach to help Jacob bridge the gap between his reading level and the level of To Kill a Mockingbird? The Russian theorist Lev Vygotsky introduced the concept of the zone of proximal development that represents the range of difficulty in which students can achieve. At one end of the zone is what they can do independently. At the other end is what they can do through attentive guidance. In the middle is what students can learn to do independently with initial support that is gradually released, sort of like cognitive training wheels. What Jacob is being asked to do is outside this zone of proximal development.
In my first experience 24 years ago as a teacher in training at San Francisco’s Mission High School I faced the irremediable problem of having a third of my students in junior English at least three years below grade level in reading. The San Francisco Unified School District was essentially in a state of institutionalized denial for having promoted these students year by year without any remediation. The problem was compounded by the fact that many of my students were second language English speakers whose reading issues were different from those of the struggling native speakers. I was stunned to discover that the school provided no strategy for addressing the problem. My own best strategy was to modify the curriculum. The 11th grade reading list included The Scarlett Letter, a book inappropriate not only because of the reading level, but because the 17th century Puritan world it depicted was so alien to my 20th century urban students. I went down to the school book inventory to look for something still justifiably literary, but more accessible. I came up with Richard Wright’s searing autobiography Black Boy. The reading level was more accessible and the story of a young man coming of age in a violently dysfunctional family in the virulently racist south was something many of my students could relate to. All of my students were young people of color. Many students responded. Some began to rise shakily from a longstanding intellectual stupor. And yet many others still remained outside the zone of proximal development.
I’m not suggesting that I had some kind of unique solution to the problem in that first year of teaching. I certainly was not the only one undermining the prescribed curriculum. But my minimum effort at challenging the status quo was a necessary step toward breaking down the monolith of a system institutionally built around a rigidly leveled standardized curriculum. That system actually works for most young people and provides an all-important pathway to college entrance. I’m not against that. But for the minority of students who are shunted to the side of the road and effectively told they are failures, there has to be an alternative. Curriculum needs to be more than differentiated. For some students it must be transformed.
I have the image in my mind of a 15 year old overweight boy asked to run a mile. Would it be just to set a standard for boys of his grade level to run say between a seven and a nine and a half minute mile because kinesthesiology researchers determine that to be a reasonable performance range? No, we wouldn’t do that because we know the boy cannot reach that range regardless of the training he undergoes. But what he can do is improve measurably on the baseline time he runs now. Let’s say 20 seconds. If he is to be evaluated, he should be evaluated against his own standard, not against some generalized standard that has nothing to do with his particular body.
The same is true of minds. I think it’s fair to evaluate Jacob based on his growth over time. But the only way to produce such growth is to give him the opportunity to work at his developmental level. If we want him to work at the highest level within his zone of proximal development he will need ongoing one on one instruction. I have the luxury of being able to do that very kind of instruction in my mentoring practice. While I cannot bring a Jacob up to so called grade level, I can design an experience that allows him to grow toward it. He can’t read To Kill a Mockingbird independently and answer character analysis questions even with the support of class discussion but my goal isn’t to get the eight question homework done with him. Instead I use the homework as a vehicle for entering an authentic learning experience that engages the assigned material. We might take a single paragraph in one scene of the story and closely study it for 25 minutes with an almost Shakespearian focus where every word and phrase merits scrutiny. Jacob would articulate ideas and insights as much or more than I do (my role being more to ask questions). The strategy is to slow everything down to a speed at which Jacob can see the landscape. In his daily classroom experience everything is always rushing by in a blur.
But I am not an option for the vast majority of Jacobs in this world. I don’t work in public schools. I am an expensive private educator hired by middle class and wealthy parents to supplement what their children are getting in school. What I do is a small stay for the privileged against a dangerous slippage into the cracks.
In Jacob’s school as it is traditionally set up he would need to be in a different classroom than his peers if he is to work in the center of his zone of proximal development. But no school is able or willing to set up an alternative program for the minority of students who cannot do so called grade level work. A school like Mission High where I taught that Black Boy that first year would have to completely reconfigure itself if it were serious about addressing the needs of all its students. The entire instructional structure of the school based on age-graded classes with a standardized curriculum would have to be rethought, a structure that replicates the configuration of schooling in America going back a hundred years. It would appear to be fundamentally obvious and yet it is radical and threatening to the system to propose that all students be given the opportunity to learn within their zone of proximal development. It is threatening because it might subvert the existing machine of educational delivery that serves the majority and oppresses a minority. It is also a political non-starter because of the heightened expense it would likely involve.
One of the reasons I left public school teaching ten years ago was that I could not endure the ongoing experience of being unable to serve my students at lower skill levels. I felt powerless within the deeply unchangeable structures of the school, district, state and nation that interlock to sustain the status quo. The status quo may mean success for the vast majority. But if we evaluate ourselves as a community based on how well we treat our most vulnerable members, we would have to conclude that we have willfully tolerated collective failure.