Lifetime learners: One student at a time

Nat Hentoff Senior Fellow, Cato Institute
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When I started on the education beat in the late 1950s in New York—having been an alumnus of the high expectations and discipline of the public Boston Latin School—whose other alumni included Samuel Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson—I used to take careful notes of the annual city-wide school test scores. I paid particular attention to a Brooklyn elementary school in a low-income neighborhood with many “disadvantaged” students, as black youngsters were called then.

As a reporter for the Village Voice, I went to the school and found the principal, Martin Schor, who was quick to tell me of his disdain for such prominent education reformers of the time as Paul Goodman and John Holt. He himself had proudly come up through the ranks—as a teacher and an assistant principal.

He offered me no grand theory of education, instead showing in his office a series of large folders containing the cumulative tests results, with updates, of each individual student—for months and years at a time. “That’s how I know,” he said, “what each one is learning—or not learning.”

I had not seen this close, continuing attention to each student by principals and administrators in other schools, although certain individual teachers, on their own, kept measuring each student—but losing track of them after they’d moved to the next grade. And once the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in the George W. Bush administration, the attention of most public school principals and teachers were riveted on the collective test results of each school—not the individual students—with each teacher fixated on persistently teaching for the tests. No time was left for civics, art, or music classes.

Increasingly, however, rebel principals and teachers are emerging who have learned—as in a January 27, 2010 headline inside Education Week—the need to “Meet Kids Where They Are—Not Where We Wish They Were.”

And the 2010 National Teacher of the Year—chosen by the Council of Chief State School Officers—says: “I see a story in every learner, unique and yearning to be read.” She is Sarah Brown Wessling, a high school English teacher in Iowa. As reported in the May 4 School News: “She creates individualized podcasts for each student with extensive feedback on their papers,” said President Obama in a tribute to her in the White House Rose Garden.

But Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, while promising an array of innovations in public education, retains considerable emphasis on the results of schools’ collective test results.

An illustration from the invaluable Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) is on its website of brave breakthroughs of common sense education reform. This is a story from the May 10, 2010 Boston Globe:

In what “is believed to be the first ever partnership between the Massachusetts state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and local school districts to find teachers for specific schools… state education officials plan to announce today an aggressive campaign to recruit hundreds of successful teachers to work in underperforming schools in Boston and eight other troubled school districts, in hopes those teachers can” regenerate the self-discoveries of learning in these schools.

For Massachusetts teachers who want to learn more in hope of being considered for this challenge, there will be a website, www.amazingteachers.org. But what of failing tenured teachers in those schools who will be told to find places elsewhere? Teachers’ unions and Democratic-controlled legislatures anywhere else this venture takes hold may erupt. The test will be whether the venerable adage, “Children First,” prevails over unions and politicians.

And a vital lesson for teachers and students everywhere is in the February 2010 ASCD Educational Leadership magazine by a longtime teacher, Carol Ann Tomlinson, presently a Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundation, and Policy at the University of Virginia.

In “One Kid At a Time,” she reveals: “I have learned the most about teaching by studying the students I teach. Learning has to be about individual learners. And given the chance, those learners will challenge our ‘certainties’ about instruction…. In some schools today, I could probably be fired for my unilateral decision to abandon prescribed teaching requirements. But beginning where the learner is continues to be the best decision I make as a teacher.”

Here is how this is underway in a March 1, 2010 public school story by New York Times reporter Winnie Hu: “This year, all 428 sixth graders at Linwood Middle School in North Brunswick, N.J. are charting their own academic path with personalized learning plans—electronic portfolios containing information about their learning styles, interests, skills, career goals, and extracurricular activities.

“These new learning plans will follow each sixth grader through high school, and are intended to help the students assess their own strengths and weaknesses as well as provide their parents and teachers with a more complete profile beyond grades and test scores.”

Until recently, however, too often missing from debates on various imperatives for “education reform” were the weaknesses of certain students due to their health. The collective, relentless assembly line testing of No Child Left Behind took little notice of possible students’ hearing, vision, or plain hunger problems.

But there is a growing change now in realizing that the whole child has to be recognized. While Randi Weingarten was head of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, she and I had many disagreements—including the union’s all too effective role in making it exceedingly difficult to fire incompetent teachers. But in her June, 2008 speech—partly echoing Herman Padillo—accepting the leadership of the national American Federation of Teachers, she caused me to call and congratulate her the next day.

“Can you imagine,” she had said, “a federal law that promoted community schools—schools that serve the neediest children by bringing together under one roof all the services and activities they and their families need… a new vision of schools for the 21st century… open all day and after school and evening recreational activities and homework assistance (including) child care and dental, medical, and counseling clinics.”

But with regard to basic health care, much remains to be done. The March 17 Educational Week reports on a study by Charles E. Basch, a professor of health and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who sounds a warning:

“At the national level, we’re on the verge of investing billions in our educational system, and the return on those investments is going to be jeopardized unless these health issues are addressed in a much more cogent way.”

He cites “vision problems, asthma, teenage pregnancy… lack of breakfast, and inattention and hyperactivity.” I would add dental problems.

To be disturbingly specific about asthma, in the same Education Week article, Debra Viadero reports federal data showing that “asthma problems… affect 8.8 percent of white children between the ages of 5 and 14, compared with 21.5 percent of Puerto Rican children and 12.8 percent of African-American children in that age range—and are particularly prevalent in the nation’s largest cities.

“Compared with children without that condition, some studies have also found, children with asthma tend to have more problems with concentration and memory, to have their sleep disrupted, and to miss more days of school.”

Through the years, I have learned much about actual—if not political—education reform from Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. In his book, Class and Schools, Rothstein says: “Without fully adequate health care for (high poverty) children, there is little hope of fully closing the achievement gap. So, a high priority should be establishing health clinics associated with schools that serve disadvantaged children.”

As for what can be done to energize health concerns in a school where 80 percent of the students are poor enough to get a free lunch, Sharon Otterman (New York Times, April 26) reports that at Public School 172 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, “teachers keep detailed notes on each, writing down weaknesses…. But at the start of this school year, seven or eight students were still falling behind. So the school hired a speech therapist who could analyze why they and other students stumbled in language.

“A psychologist produced detailed assessments and recommendations. A dental clinic staffed by Lutheran Medical Center opened an office just off the fourth-grade classrooms, diagnosing toothaches as a possible source of distraction, and provided free cleanings.”

My own elementary public school in Boston was the William Lloyd Garrison School during the so-called “Great Depression.” I received first-class basics in reading and math. And the teachers, though not asking us about home conditions, were aware of the learning capabilities of each of us.

My sixth-grade teacher, Miss Fitzgerald, who would not permit any one of us to let ourselves be left behind, marched down to my home one evening and ordered my parents—as she pointed to me—to “make sure this child goes to Boston Latin School.” They had never heard of it in the Old Country. I quaked because I’d heard how hard it was. But being in that school, with a minimum of three hours essential homework a night, my life changed.

That is the individualized attention needed to make sure that no child is left behind.

Nat Hentoff is an authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights, a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.