If not 100% proficiency, then what?

Fifteen years ago, more or less, I was asked to speak to a graduate class for teachers seeking an administrative credential. A teacher talked about all the kids growing up in poverty and in dysfunctional families and said San Jose Unified’s slogan, “All children can learn,” was unrealistic. The teacher asked me what percentage of students the public expected the schools to educate.

I said, “Ninety percent?” The teachers laughed. Derisively. I wish I’d made them come up with a number.

Education reformers are accusing Diane Ravitch of defeatism when it comes to educating poor children, notes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.  But it’s time to clarify what reformers think they can achieve, he writes. If we can’t bring 100 percent of students to proficiency — and we can’t —  what can education reform achieve?

This fall, about 1 million poor children will enroll in U.S. kindergartens, he writes. Most are the children of poorly educated single mothers. Should school accountability systems expect all these children to be prepared to attend four-year colleges? Is it enough for them to do no worse than their mothers?

I would bet that your own views fall somewhere in between. You acknowledge–privately at least–that it’s unrealistic to expect all kids growing up in poverty to be able to “beat the odds” and graduate from college. (That’s why we call them odds.) You recognize that for most middle-class families, the path from poverty to prosperity was a multi-generational journey.

But you also believe in the promise of social mobility, and can point to examples of schools–even mediocre ones–that have helped some kids escape the ghetto or the barrio or the reservation. To accept the status quo is to accept perpetual injustice for decades to come.

A stretch goal, writes Petrilli, would be to move the high school graduation rate in poor districts from 50 percent to 60 percent, perhaps to shift the reading proficiency rate for 12th graders with parents who dropped out of high school from 17 percent up to 25 percent, or math proficiency from 8 percent to 15 percent.

That would turn 400,000 of our million poor kids into drop-outs; only 90,000 would be proficient in math. But it’s an improvement.

There could be less ambitious goals, Petrilli writes:

Getting more of them to the “basic” level on NAEP? Preparing them for decent-paying jobs instead of the lowest-paid jobs? Driving down the teen pregnancy rate? Lowering the incarceration rate?

. . . If we are to get beyond the “100 percent proficiency” or “all students college and career ready” rhetoric, these are the conversations we need to have. And if we’re not willing to do so, don’t complain when Diane Ravitch and her armies of angry teachers complain that we are asking them to perform miracles.

President Obama wants all young Americans to have at least a year of postsecondary education. But only 71.7 percent complete high school: The rate drops to 57 percent for blacks, 58 percent for Latinos.

Update: Dropout Nation prefers irrational exuberance to low expectations.

About Joanne


  1. This teacher believes that all kids CAN learn – it’s just determining at what level for each individual child. Part of the struggle is trying to best meet the needs of all of our kids. Further hampering our ability to teach each child to reach their potential is not letting their circumstances define their destiny. What I mean is that I fear that in our schools that have high poverty, or high levels of second language learners, or other socio-economic factors that may undermine success as we define it, kids who have the potential to reach greatness may never have the opportunity to do so.

  2. I think part of the problem is that a HUGE percentage of kids just WON’T learn.

    Sure, there are some kids (maybe IQ less than 90?) who won’t ever learn to read or do arithmatic well.

    But most kids COULD manage Algebra by 12th grade, reading at an 8th grade level by 12th grade, and basic civics/history/science.

    The key is, they’d have to be willing to TRY to master the material. No sitting in class, paying attention for 45 seconds, and then declaring “I just don’t understand this.”

    One thing I’ve noticed about kids who do learn versus kids who ‘can’t.’ The kids who learn are willing to revisit a concept, think about it, and work at it. The kids who ‘can’t’ don’t want to work. They want it to come naturally. But these are the same kids who understand that to get really good at a sport or a video game, you have to keep working at it. They’re just unwilling to work at something that they don’t find entertaining.

    THIS is what leads them to fail at school and life–not a lack of basic IQ, but a refusal to work hard without instant gratification. No job is fun all the time. Raising kids isn’t fun all the time. Relationships aren’t fun all the time. A lack of perseverance means you’ll fail at all of these.

    Unfortunately, teaching perseverance begins at home. I think it even starts by indoctrinating the preschoolers with “practice makes perfect” and “If at first you don’t succeed….”

    And if you have kids coming from homes that tell them “You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game,” well…. they’re not going to bother working or persevering.

  3. I agree with Ms. Teacher here that all kids can learn, but the level is different for all.

    A former coach had a great analogy, expecting all kids to be proficient would be like a parent expecting a coach to get a 300+ lbs. football player to be able to run a 4.5/40 yd sprint.

    Some people just can’t do it.

  4. I think we should set a target of 25% of students reaching “advanced” level of proficiency, 75% reaching “proficient” or above, and 90% reaching “basic” or above. There are about 10% of students who have learning disabilities or just general low cognitive ability and they need to have their own individual targets. “No child left behind” is a nice sentiment but unrealistic.

  5. How about 100% of students reading at grade level by 5th grade? (The 5th, rather than 3rd grade, gives some wiggle room for English language learners and children who enter kindergarten with sub-optimal language skills.)

  6. I would not have laughed. I understand the cynicism behind the laughter of those teachers, though, and even though Joanne may have been insulted by it, there’s something to be said for why that cynicism exists.

    Here are a few possible reasons for that “derisive” laughter: awareness of chronic student absenteeism, student drug addiction, violent homes, poverty. I’m not excusing poor teaching and bad schools, but teachers become very, very frustrated when the majority of a child’s learning life – which is most certainly impacted by social ills – is heaped on her shoulders.

    This is the dark side of teacher-as-hero myth: do it all, or burn out. 100% or failure.

    There’s life in between those poles. Good schools and excellent teaching can mitigate negative social factors, and by God we should not excuse lack of effort.

    I think Petrilli’s goals sound pretty reasonable.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    They’re just unwilling to work at something that they don’t find entertaining.

    I would phrase that differently: They’re just unwilling to work at something that they don’t find important.

    Now, to most kids being entertained is important. Hey it is to everyone. And to many kids, doing well at a sport or a job is also important. It can be a little jarring to see a terrible, lazy student being a great worker at a local fast food place.

    Lots of kids just don’t see what they are supposed to learn in school as important. Partly, that is youthful ignorance on their part. But a lot of it is exactly right. When kids ask, “When will I ever use this?” it is often impossible to honestly answer anything other than, “Later in school.” [Perhaps another honest answer is, “If you become like me.”]

    We do not build our curriculum from the bottom up, “What should future citizens know and be able to do?” Instead, we largely do it from the top down, “What courses do people take in college? We’ll teach elementary versions of them.”

  8. The basis of the problem is the attempt to treat all students alike, and provide them with the same “opportunities”.

    That is why almost all high schools no longer have general ed classes, instead everyone takes college prep.

    We are unwiling, or unable, to provide classes that will give those students who are never going to college (many of whom never wanted to) the basic knowledge they will need to be successful in life. (Roger’s “What should future citizens know and be able to do?”)

    There is this idea that education and knowledge are valuable for their own sake. Which is true. But not for everybody, which we seem to have forgotten.

    I have no added to my list of quick and easy fixes for education:

    1) Bring back the willingness to kick disruptive and uncooperative students out of school.

    2) Bring back both tracking, and a two tiered education system, one designed for those going to college and one designed for those not going to college.

  9. I have to say that I agree with Roger – school is just not important to many kids. They are smart, they can learn if it is important to them, they just don’t see any need to learn what we’re trying to teach them.

  10. How about 100% of students reading at grade level by 5th grade?

    By definition, ~9% of the student population has an IQ of <80, which is considered mental retardation. Do you honestly believe that even the best schools are going to get those students reading at a 5th grade level by 5th grade?

  11. Steve Sailer has a related thread on mental energy which offers a possible explanation for this phenomenon:  many, but especially the children of the poor, do not have the mental energy to spend on the self-denial necessary to defer gratification and work for the future instead of the present.

    If this is even a substantial part of the phenomenon, it means that our media-driven society and pop culture do an especially poor job of providing guidance for these people.  He offers a suggestion:

    Also, let me put in a word here for an old-fashioned class system. The idea was that there were respectable modes of behavior for whatever class you aspire to, so you don’t have to make up your mind a la carte on every damn thing all day long. You just look at what the people in the class of which you wish to be considered a respectable member do, and imitate it.

  12. Stacy in NJ says:

    We should issue a general education dipolma based on a basic skills and basic content test. Students should have the ability to take the test whenever they feel they’re prepared regardless of age or grade. Once completed, they should have access to training in the trades, community college classes, or more advanced college prep high school classes.

    The test should include:

    Math to an 8th grade level (arithmatic and very basic algebra and geo)

    Reading of expository and narrative selections and answering informational and some inference focused questions. Selections from newspapers and novels would be appropriate.

    Writing of a short persuasive well structured essay with *mostly* correct grammar and spelling

    Basic factual world and American history with an emphasis on civics

    General informational science facts

    That’s it. Whether they take the test at 10, 12, 14, 16 or 18 matters little.

  13. palisadesk says:

    How about 100% of students reading at grade level by 5th grade?

    A problem with this goal is defining terms. If “grade level” is taken at its usual statistical meaning — the median, or 50th percentile — it is obvious that we can’t have 100% of any cohort performing at or above the 50th %ile. If we take “grade level” to refer to a range (often the 25th-75th%ile range is considered “average”), we still can’t get 100% to be above the 25th percentile.

    Suppose we adopt a more criterion-based definition — a certain level of text that all students should be able to decode accurately and comprehend by a certain point in time. Currently, there is no agreement on such a standard, although most reading researchers would probably agree that the vast majority of students could master basic decoding skills and literal text comprehension by age 10, if given sufficiently intensive and sequential instruction. That 100% — or even 75% — would demonstrate skill in inferencing, “making connections,” confirming predictions, backing up arguments with evidence from the text, etc. — skills now required for “grade level” performance very early on — is an unproven hypothesis. We don’t have consensus on how to teach subskills involved in comprehending text, nor even an agreement that such skills exist or can be taught at all.

    It would be a useful, if complex, discussion to have: what level of skill in reading (or other areas) is every student capable of attaining, and how shall we define and measure that achievement? More to the point, how do we provide instruction that produces such achievement, once we can define and measure it?

    At present we are nowhere near having any firm grasp on such specifics, although we do have plenty of data on how to teach basic skills effectively to almost all children. Whether we can do so in public education milieux as currently set up is an entirely difrferent question.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    What do you do with the Intentional Non-Learners? As I’ve said before, my wife, just before retiring, went to a PD where the subject of the Intentional Non-Learner was one of the subjects. The implication is that somebody is getting ready to make this a discrete sub-population with who knows what requirements. Whatever that amounts to, they exist now, at least by HS.
    So far, they can’t be shown to be challenged in any way.
    So…if we have a discrete and accepted category, do we not count them in measuring progress?

  15. What do you do with the Intentional Non-Learners?

    Deport our illegal aliens and put the INLs to work in those jobs for minimum wage plus 3 hots and a cot.  The problem will solve itself.

  16. CarolineSF says:

    What about the fact that the INLs are not likely to put any effort into those jobs, Engineer-Poet?

    And what about the fact that a great number of high-wealth Americans (undoubtedly including your friends, neighbors and relatives) are entrusting their precious children to “our illegal aliens” and might not be thrilled to entrust them to INLs on your say-so? On a level of lesser import, same with their housecleaning (including trusting people with access to their homes), yard work and home construction.

    How about you try this first — force some INLs into YOUR house to take care of your loved ones and prized possessions — and report back on how it goes.

  17. Good point–who would you rather have washing your windows? An immigrant grandma who pays attention to detail and is reasonably polite, or some whiney pothead slacker who can’t even be bothered to complete a pop quiz? Most of those “illegal immigrant’ type jobs actually require a work ethic and attention to detail.

    (Note: for me this is just a thought experiment as the ACTUAL answer is “My seven year old.”)

  18. Roger Sweeny says:

    Of course, a terrible–and terribly simple–way of dealing with Intentional Non-Learners would be to say, “Okay, here’s your ‘get out of school free’ card. Now, find a way to feed yourself. We’re not giving you anything: no money, no medical care, no housing. It’s up to you.” That was the way things worked for ages. People talked about the “deserving poor” (who tried but couldn’t make it) and the “undeserving poor” (who didn’t try). It gave you a real incentive to take advantage of opportunities.

    But it’s much too tough for modern sensibilities.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    I think I recall a study showing that even amoebae can learn. Something about enough times hitting a sharp edge or something.
    And few people will starve because they won’t trouble themselves to eat food in front of them.
    Those who won’t work when they’ll be fed anyway is, I suspect, a larger cohort of our population.
    In the old days, even a farmer’s hired hand had to know a lot, even if illiterate. Screw up and the crop fails, or the equipment breaks or the stock get loose. Also had to work.
    However, the question is how to count them in assessing schools’ performance. Since, as has been said, casting them loose isn’t in the cards, unfortunately.

  20. I am grateful to Palisadesk for fleshing out my comment, which was a snarky drive-by rather than an actual formed thought.

    Yes, there are a percentage of children whose intellectual disabilities will prevent them from learning to read, and it was careless of me not to consider that cohort.

    As Palisadesk wrote:

    …most reading researchers would probably agree that the vast majority of students could master basic decoding skills and literal text comprehension by age 10, if given sufficiently intensive and sequential instruction.

    My argument is that as a society, we aren’t even achieving that goal.

  21. Richard Aubrey says:

    I have been exposed to four languages besides English. One was not Indo-European. I can’t say I speak any of them at this point. However, at one time or another, I could get by.
    None of them used anything resembling whole language. It was pretty simple, with repetition and building on and so forth.
    If we could get rid of the edfads and go to phonics and direct instruction, both subject to various political opposition, even the current level of time on task would be more effective.

  22. What about the fact that the INLs are not likely to put any effort into those jobs, Engineer-Poet?

    No work = no pay and no food.  Give them a plastic tarp to sleep under.  That sort of thing would motivate most of them.

    And what about the fact that a great number of high-wealth Americans (undoubtedly including your friends, neighbors and relatives) are entrusting their precious children to “our illegal aliens” and might not be thrilled to entrust them to INLs on your say-so?

    I know no one who has employed an illegal alien as household help.  It’s just not done in my stratum, or AFAIK in this region.

    The people who would be discomfited by having to pay real wages for child care are breaking the law anyway.  Jailing a few and dunning all who can be caught for fines, taxes and penalties would help, not the least by showing the public that the law applies to everyone.  It would also open up employment opportunities for the motivated.  Given the high level of structural unemployment in the USA, the importance of this should not be understated.

    How about you try this first — force some INLs into YOUR house to take care of your loved ones and prized possessions

    Why should I deal with INLs?  I’m a traditionalist; most of the stuff that gets done in and around my house I do personally.  That includes cleaning, cooking, landscaping and carrying weapons.

  23. I know no one who has employed an illegal alien as household help.

    Really? You think 100% of the nannies, housecleaners, gardeners, home health care aides, etc. in your area are U.S. citizens or legal residents?

    Most folks in my social circle take a DADT policy towards the legal status of their various household service providers.

  24. The closest thing I know personally is neighbors who employed a few girls as au pairs.  Unlike the typical illegal Latin immigrant, they went home after their stints.