Let's face it, for these kids school has been more day care than school. For those that didn't drop out, high school was the end of the academic road for these kids and most states don't have an exit exam to graduate. It didn't really matter whether or how much these kids learned, it only mattered that they put their time in -- twelve long years.
Under NCLB, we now expect these kids to be learning something. Since many of these kids are still not learning what they are supposed to be, excuses must be found to explain this lack of performance.
One popular excuse, especially among teachers in the trenches, is that these kids are disengaged and unmotivated to learn. When teachers tell you this, they think they are telling you the underlying reason or cause for the underperformance. In fact, however, they are merely describing the effect or the symptom.
Kids are not failing to learn because they are unmotivated. Kids are unmotivated because they are failing to learn. When kids are learning, they are motivated to learn more. Learning more keeps them become motivated to learn more. However, once the learning begins to stop, so does the motivation. And, in no time at all the learning train will completely derail. Good luck trying to get the train back on the tracks. Getting kids back on the academic tracks is an exceedingly difficult task in elementary school. It is all but impossible after that time.
The one thing that the kids on the bottom half of the curve have in common is that they are in the process of derailing or have derailed by the time they're completely elementary school. Lack of motivation is the effect observed by the teachers of these kids, but lack of learning was, and continues to be, the root cause.
Let's take a look at how the motivation-learning cycle typically plays out. Let's take a look at an extreme case. Let's take a look at Amanda (pdf) who was diagnosed with Infantile Autism and has an estimated IQ of 63. (With an IQ this low (the bottom 0.68 of the population), Amanda falls into that 1% group who takes an alternate assessment under NCLB.) Here's what Amanda's school psychologist's had to say in her 2nd grade assessment:
She is mildly mentally retarded, and she will never be a rocket scientist or an engineer. All you can hope for is your daughter to get a mediocre job when she is an adult. She might peak out mentally as an 11-year-old, with a reading capability of maybe a third grader.Naturally, Amanda was placed into special education where she was floundering academically.
She was easily frustrated and discouraged with lessons. Amanda would come home from school and go directly to bed. She spoke in a monotone voice and rarely smiled.Amanda was not only not learning, but she was also unmotivated.
Her mother began teaching her at home and initially met with the same attitude that teachers are all too familiar with.
Amanda's first attitude was, "I can't do this!" Amanda at times would hide under the table and Marsha would have to force her out to do the program.Amanda had derailed academically. Clearly, Amanda was disengaged and unmotivated for further learning. For most kids, this is where school for learning ends and school as day care begins.
Sure, schools go through all the right motions, but the one thing at which they are consistently poor is jump starting the learning process in kids who are behind and are difficult learners. For many low IQ and low SES kids, this is how schools get them in kindergarten. Basically, these kids never had a chance in most schools.
But, Amanda's mother wasn't about to give. She did what most schools either don't know how or don't want to do. She went back to square one and began the difficult process of teaching Amanda in a way that she was able to actually learn. It wasn't easy.
Marsha estimated that it took around 1,000 repetitions to teach Amanda the first few sentence forms in the ... program.Eventually, Amanda started to learn again and as a result her motivation returned.
Probably one of the most difficult initial concepts for Amanda to learn was the individual sounds various letters make. It took Amanda over 3 years to be able to recognize letter sounds.
After several weeks, Marsha noticed Amanda's confidence and enthusiasm toward the instruction dramatically increasing because she was given tasks that she could perform successfully.Amanda represents the very bottom of the curve. She isn't the typical face of special education either. Most kids in special education do not have the sort of cognitive disabilities that Amanda has. Many special education kids merely have "learning disabilities" which means they are, by definition, of normal intelligence, but simply aren't learning as fast as they should be. And, even these kids don't account for most of the kids failing under NCLB who aren't even in special education.
The transformation in Amanda's attitude toward learning new things was also dramatic. She no longer napped when she got home from school. Amanda began drawing pictures that were vibrantly colorful and detailed. Earlier, the occupational therapist had set a goal for Amanda to include three objects in her drawings. Amanda's new artwork far surpassed this goal. The transformation occurred not only in academic and psychological areas, it affected her socialization as well. She developed many friendships, was always smiling, loved going to school,
and was happier at home.
The one thing most of these kids have in common with Amanda is that they are disengaged from school and unmotivated to learn. However, the advantage that they have is that it should be much easier to get them back on track and learning than it was for Amanda.
We don't necessarily expect schools to work miracles like Amanda's mother, but we do expect them to do a better job with the rest of the lower half of the curve. It doesn't take Rothsteinian socio-economic finagling, it only takes good solid teaching.