I met an old neighbor today and in talking politely she informed me that she was tutoring students in the Philadelphia school district in reading comprehension. When pressed for details on what her students were reading, she said, "Nothing. They can't read. These are fourth graders who have no reading skills."
How does this happen, I asked? How does a student get to fourth grade with no reading comprehension, no writing skills, and why will they be pushed into fifth grade? The reason is simple, she said. No one wants to deal with these kids. There are no programs to put them in. Some are obviously learning disabled, but there are no resources available. I suggested that perhaps we should start some programs where kids like this are removed from the academic environment and given something more productive and enjoyable to do, such as learn how to paint properly, or clean, maybe start with learning how to read the labels on containers, rather than books.
Our entire learning system is corrupt. The idea of no-child-left-behind has done exactly the opposite, leaving more and more children behind as children unsuitable for the level they're at sit in classrooms and either stare at the walls, in the best of circumstances, or create disruptions. My ex taught in a city school with 40 students in each class, trying to corral them to teach match to eighth graders with the math skills of first graders, along with a few at the proper level. When the end of the term came, she was told to push all but the worst along, and they got pushed along too. No one wants twenty-five-year-old eighth graders still doing math at a first grade level asking classmates on dates, or more appropriately, teachers.
The charter school system has only made this terrible situation worse. Charter schools are able to cherry pick the best students and at this time of year they are able to expel students who aren't achieving and send them back into the public system. But they don't have to return any of the money they've received for the entire year of education. That's what I was told, meaning even fewer resources and even more behind students.
If you want to understand why the US has gone from being one the best educational systems in the world to one of the worst in the industrialized world, all you have to look at is how we treat the students who want to learn at schools where so many students are incapable of learning. Not to talk about the differences in assets spent per student. In Philadelphia it's around $4500/student, compared with $17,000 for a wealthy suburban district. But the money difference is not the main culprit in my opinion. The biggest culprit is that we don't have good alternatives in education for kids incapable of learning academics other than having them sit silently between recesses and lunch.