No Children Left Behind is the current, national priority in K-12 public education. And, while there are sub-text strategies and objectives, what it all boils down to is how to close the persistent gap by raising skills of the lowest student performers. Yet, it seems that the current strategies are doomed to failure as they avoid the real needs of low performers. Yes, better teachers will always help as will more responsible parents. And, yes, better materials, more challenging requirements, mentors, after-school assistance, summer school programs, etc. all will help some students. Nevertheless, if we are really serious about closing the gap in student performance, school officials will need to make dramatic changes in the very construct of the school day – and that does not seem to be ‘on the table’ today.
The real key is to recognize that closing the gap means that low performers will have to accelerate their skills and performance faster than those students who are on grade level.
To accomplish that, low performers need to spend more ‘time on task’ than their higher performing peers. And, that leads us to realize that the school day schedule has to be reconsidered to allow for more time on task. This is at the heart of the issue even if current decision-makers have not been willing to recognize it. But, let’s come back to that.
What impedes progress with the current array of strategies? Summer school is a case in point. It is mainly used to give failing students another go at mastery at their current grade level. But, if a student is reading at the third grade level while in the seventh or eighth grade, providing more seventh or eighth grade work makes no sense. What such a student needs is to start back with fourth grade work and work up to his or her current grade level expectation.
Yes, some will gain promotion after summer school, especially those who missed lots of school for whatever reason but have relevant skills.
The low performers, however, will continue to suffer. A weekly mentoring hour sounds good, but will mainly help those needing adult guidance, a friend, or help with socialization. And, yes, we all wish that every parent had the time, the interest, and the education background to help their own children. But, these strategies will not have much impact in the short-term and with children who are already way behind.
Finally, a word about ‘better qualified teachers.’ Yes, we do need that. However, this is a long-term objective made more difficult today by the fact that many of our most skillful teachers are nearing retirement. And, in the meantime, our students already in the pipeline cannot simply mark time waiting for the better-qualified teacher arrivals!