Why Schools Aren’t Working

Recently, the local school district in my city released the results of standardized test scores.   They were abysmally low. And so the conversation resumes…same song, second verse…over and over again. We need more rigorous standards…more testing…more accountability.

You would think that over the past two decades of suffering under No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and other misguided initiatives intended to improve education we would have realized by now that it isn’t about more rigorous standards and more testing.

It’s about children. Period. So instead of measuring symptoms, let’s get to some of the root causes of failure in schools.

We live in a child illiterate culture.

We have forgotten what children are like, how they learn and how their hearts and minds develop.

I often use the analogy that teachers are a lot like football players. I can think of no other professions where people who have never done your job want to tell you how to do it. Armchair quarterbacking takes place in living rooms all over the country. Everyone knows what the quarterback should have done to win the game and everyone has an opinion about the coach–even if they’ve never stepped foot on a football field.

It is the same with teachers. Who is it that sets the standards for education? Politicians, businessmen and academics—people who have never worked with children and never studied child development and education.

I read a blog this week by a mathematician who was on the national committee to identify common core standards. He was lamenting what he perceives as the low expectations in schools. It was obvious that he knows math but he knows nothing about children and how they think—especially young ones.

Here’s the scary part. Those who don’t know how kids develop and learn are often the ones who set the expectations. Those who do know are expected to keep quiet and follow the rules.

We no longer live in culture of well-nurtured children.

 Traditional models of schooling are based on the belief that we have well nurtured children sitting in classrooms. We assume that by the time children enter kindergarten or first grade they have the capacity to function and learn in a group setting. We assume that they are able to focus and pay attention for an age-appropriate amount of time, manage their impulses to a reasonable degree, share, take turns, manage daily transitions throughout the school day and complete a task.

If you are a teacher or a childcare provider you know this is no longer the case.

The word “nurture” means effectively meeting children’s developmental needs at optimum time frames in their development. We currently live in a culture where children are expected to adapt to the needs of adults rather than adults adapting their lifestyle to meet the needs of the child. The outcome is a generation of children whose most basic needs have not been met.

Change is never easy but one step parents can take is to gain some understanding of child development and what their needs are at different ages and stages in the developmental process.

We have decades of brain research that is largely being ignored.

By the time a child reaches four years of age, the brain is 90% of it’s adult size, most of the organization of the brain has taken place and a significant amount of the structure of the brain has been established. Children enter into formal schooling with a brain that has already been customized to function in the environment in which they live.

You see the problem now, don’t you? One size does not fit all as the standardistos would like for you to believe.

Never before in our history do we have such a variety of “brains” sitting in a classroom. The child who has been read to every night sits next to the child who never saw a book until he came to school. The child who goes to bed in the security of a safe and loving home sits next to the child who just immigrated from a war torn country and spent the first years of life living in terror. The child whose mom and dad are on the sidelines at every sporting event and activity sits next to the child whose parents never attend.

Maybe they don’t read to their kids or attend events because they work two jobs or have serious health issues. But in some cases they’re not present because they are hooked on both legal and illegal drugs. But regardless of the cause, the child suffers, the classroom suffers and our communities suffer.

It’s about relationships.

We have known for decades that in order for children to thrive and learn they need a “secure base” that fuels their psychological “tank” to venture out and explore the world.

They need to know that someone “has my back” and has unconditional positive regard and love for them. They need secure relationships–first at home and also at school. You can’t cram thirty kids in a classroom and expect teachers to get to know them in a meaningful way.

Schools and legislators need to understand it’s about relationships. We can’t afford not to fund additional staffing to reduce class sizes.  Without relationships learning will suffer.

It’s about trauma.

 Until we address the trauma issue we will never make educational progress with our children.

Trauma changes children’s brains in ways that impact learning, behavior and daily functioning. According to research by Child Trends, 46% of all children across the United States have at least one identifiable “adverse childhood experience.” Some would argue that this statistic is low.  The effects of abuse and profound neglect are obvious. But we also have to acknowledge the toxic effects of divorce, incarceration, poverty, domestic violence, community violence, mental illness, medical trauma, abandonment and foster care.

It is ultimately our children who bear the brunt of a culture that has lost it’s moorings.

We need trauma informed communities that understand the toxic effects of trauma on children and the ultimate effects on schools, communities, churches, families and the culture at large.

It’s about technology.

 Technology has atrophied children’s attention spans.

In a virtual world time is compressed, creating a fast moving, fantastical environment unlike that of reality. Screen time creates biological changes in children that cause them to react rather than think. The real world of classroom life moves at a much slower pace—as it should–because learning to think, problem solve and create takes time.

In our convenience oriented culture smart phones, tablets and computers have become babysitters at home and at school.

Technology has created a generation of preoccupied parents. Dr. Bruce Perry, internationally recognized expert in brain development says, “The immature brain requires the full presence of a more organized brain to organize.”   Very few children today enjoy the benefit of the full presence of mom or dad for any significant length of time.

Thinking that we will improve the education of our children with more rigorous standards and more formal assessments makes about as much sense as believing we will cure cancer by setting higher performance standards for doctors and running more tests.

It’s not rocket science…it’s common sense. And if there is one thing our kids need more of is common sense.

 

 

Dr. Barbara Sorrels

Dr. Barbara Sorrels is Executive Director of The Institute for Childhood Education, a private professional development and consulting firm for those who live and work with children. Dr. Sorrels holds a doctorate in Early Childhood Education from Oklahoma State University, a master’s degree in Christian Education from Southwestern Seminary and a B.A. in Early Childhood Education from the University of Maryland. She served for over 5 years on the faculty of Oklahoma State University teaching in the Early Childhood Education program.
 
Dr. Sorrels has had over 20 years of classroom experience teaching children of all ages in child care, kindergarten and elementary school classrooms, as well as over 5 years experience teaching graduate and undergraduate students at the university level. She also founded and directed early childhood centers located in Washington, D.C. and Fort Worth, Texas.