Q: Some officials are considering shutting down a high school in my area because in the entire graduating class, only two students are college-ready and the average graduate reads at a fourth grade level. This is after several years of trying to fix the problems. The plan is getting pushback, however. Why not shut down the school and give the kids a chance to attend a high school with better achievement?
How does shutting down the school fix the problem? I get how it will fix the numerical problem, of course. Educational officials long ago learned that you can “hide” a struggling population of students by absorbing them into a much larger population of students who are achieving at a higher level. This gives the public the illusion that the students from the struggling school have all been “fixed.” In reality, they’re just being overlooked.
But what about the actual problem? You know, the one where kids aren’t learning what they are supposed to? How would shutting down a school fix that? Is the building haunted?
Insofar as we consider this to be a district problem, the solution probably lies in doing something that elected officials seem reluctant to do: embrace common sense. Obviously if a high school student is reading at a fourth grade level, the problem didn’t start in high school. You have to rewind a ways.
Issue No. 1 is that a child who can only read fourth grade materials shouldn’t go to fifth grade until he can. The same applies on down the line. But most school districts lack the appetite to retain a child for the purpose of teaching him to read (or retaining him at all, opting instead for “social promotion”). Occasionally they’ll have a child repeat a grade and make him retake everything all over again: P.E., music, art, history, etc. All of that’s a waste of time if he can’t read, so the child should be given reading immersion courses until he’s ready to advance.
In fact, the failure likely started earlier than fourth grade. Children who leave first grade and can’t read at a first grade level are perpetually behind their peers. So instead of condemning the high school, attention should first be placed on the elementary schools that feed into it. You don’t shut down the Pripyat hospital because the victims of the Chernobyl meltdown were dying there: you fix the melting reactor, and, as any teacher knows, such a meltdown is an apt comparison to an elementary school that is promoting more children than it is teaching to read.
Issue No. 2 is that parents must step up and take responsibility for what’s happening to their own children. They can blame the school, district, or board if they like, but that’s like blaming the lifeguard when the lake gives you E. coli.
These parents must accept the reality that they have far more influence on their children than a teacher who sees them for an hour a day. They have to make them do their homework (parents of failing students often don’t). They have to make them behave, obey, and pay attention, starting from day one (they often don’t do that, either). And if the school tells you that your child is being promoted to the next level even though he hasn’t passed his courses or can’t read on grade level, then you tell that school it will happen over your dead body. As far as I can tell, you are not legally obligated to participate in a school’s poor decision-making.
But don’t stop there. If your child is reading below grade level, then you ride him like a bull until he gets to where he needs to be. Instead of video games, let him play books. Instead of football, make him play homework. Instead of a phone, give him a library card.
Of course if you simply don’t care that your child will always be less literate than those around him, then by all means, put his entire education in the hands of a school system that thinks it’s no big deal to award a high school diploma to a kid who can’t read half the words written on it.
Now, the high school is not absolved of responsibility here. I have a few questions for them, too, and the first one is how in the world was a student who can’t read fifth grade material ever able to pass a high school biology class or a senior literature class, or an economics course? Are you serious? It sounds to me like that curriculum has been watered down and those grades inflated beyond recognition.
What seems to have happened to these students is nothing less than a contemporary American tragedy. Those graduates have been let down by the adults in their lives who led them to believe that failing was actually passing, that illiteracy was somehow literacy, and that standing still was moving forward.
And since that’s the state of things as they stand today, it’s not difficult to see why some would think that ignoring a problem is the same as fixing it.