TELLING WHAT WE KNOW

PART IV

ALL KIDS CAN’T LEARN EVERYTHING

1/17/06    

            When I was young, some of the tough old teachers I had in elementary school used to talk about the smart kids and the dumb kids.  There was even the dreaded Miss Trulsen, the scourge of the sixth grade at PS 221, who looked up at us from her desk one day where she was scoring what I now know was our group IQ tests to announce to the class that she finally understood why my friend Marie didn’t do well in school.  “According to this test,” she fumed with downright glee in her eyes, “You, Marie, are a moron.”   I suspect that the experience of that day motivated me to spend the major portion of my teaching career voluntarily teaching the Maries of this world, time which I don’t think I could have spent in any better way.  

        Beyond any question, the modern thought that all children can learn has had dramatically important, positive effects on the lives of countless students who in my day were too often written off as essentially uneducable.  That said, it is equally beyond question that a false corollary to that thought has slowly evolved that says that all children are capable of learning all things.  Said straight forwardly, the absurdity of the proposition is self-evident, even I suspect to policy makers who never taught a child anything.  Yet, in the politically correct world of public education, it is precisely that nutty idea that is axiomatically accepted.  It’s at the core of the No Child Left Behind Act.  Worse still it erodes the academic standards in our highest achieving districts when it is extended to solemnize the practice of teaching students of widely disparate intellectual ability in the same class in the belief that all students profit in this arrangement.  They don’t.

            When the Regents in New York, acting on the belief that all children can learn all things, mandated that essentially all children pass Regents Examinations to receive a high school diploma, one of the predictable results was that those examinations would become the standard for what students needed to know of any subject, even though the more able students were once expected to know more.  Also predictable was that over time the examinations would grow easier to prove the efficacy of the Regents’ policy.   Easy though most of the exams are, some children still fail.  As their failure challenges the assumption that all children can learn all things, even many of these failing students are passed by groups of teachers who review all failing papers again and again, searching for points in a process called “scrubbing the grades” in New York City.  George Bush said, “Let there be yearly progress;” and there is yearly progress in what has become the Orwellian world of public education.

        Critics will charge that I wish to close off access to richer curriculum for all students.  I do not!  I’m a teacher who taught Beowulf, Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare to students who could hardly read the words out of a deep belief that it was important for them to know something about these works of art, if only to be able to talk to their own kids about their homework.  I did so in classes whose composition permitted me the latitude to explore these works in ways that worked for these students.  I’ll simply note that in the high school in my district, we don’t teach Beowulf and Chaucer anymore.  We don’t even teach British literature.  It’s considered too hard.  How come it didn’t used to be?

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED PART I PART II or PART III IN THIS SERIES

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