Step by Step: Toward Success for All Students
by Terry Halwes
biologyeconomicsearly yearsschool


We need a way of educating citizens for life in a rapidly changing, increasingly democratic world -- what we've been doing isn't working, and in many ways it works less and less well as the years go by. 

In other articles I discuss some serious problems with the ways we have been thinking about schools and what they should be doing, and some general principles for beginning to understand how let them to do a better job of helping students learn. Here we will focus on specific changes, at each level of the process, that can give teachers, parents, communities and students a better chance of working successfully together to build a mutually respectful, sustainable community. 

We begin long before school starts, with the conditions in the womb of the mother of the student-to-be. Then through infancy, day care, preschool, step by step, all the way through life, the need to learn, and the possibility of enjoying doing so, continues. Just so, reevaluating, rethinking and remodeling our schooling systems needs to begin at the beginning of life and carry on through the end. That doesn't mean that improvements in post-graduate training should come after improvements in day care -- just that improvements at all levels of the system are essential.

Applications of general principles, for example giving up corrupt practices like ranking people, forced competition, use of reward and punishment as standard practice, and so on, are discussed elsewhere. Here we are presenting our triage of the modern educational system. At every level, many variables (things we could change) affect current and future educational success. Of those many variables, most have small effects, but a few variables affect educational success profoundly. This article is about those few, immensely powerful variables, and what we might well do about them.

Related Articles
Compulsory Failure in Modern Education

The INREAL Teacher Training

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The primary causes of "mental retardation" are maternal malnutrition and malnutrition during infancy. Brains are made out of food. Successful brains are a combination of food and love.

You have to find a way to feed the mothers-to-be in your community. You have to find a way for people who would rather avoid being mothers to do so.

If you think you can't afford to feed all your pregnant community members, you have to think more clearly about economics. If you have a lot of people who are not succeeding in school, you are going to have a lot of people who are costing your community money, rather than paying taxes, throughout their entire lives -- people on welfare, people in various institutions, people in prison. You can feed several entire families for what it costs to keep one person in prison -- and if you count the cost of the damage that people do that leads to their being in prison, plus the cost of catching them and convicting them, you can feed a few more families with the money you save. Even if your main focus is saving the taxpayers' money, one of the best ways to do that is to make sure that the mothers and infants in your community eat well.

If a child is fed properly as an infant, malnutrition while that child is a toddler will still have harmful effects, but not nearly so harmful as the effects of fetal and infant malnutrition. The older the child when the malnutrition begins, the smaller the disastrous effects of malnutrition. However, these are relative amounts. During the school years, and even in college, serious malnutrition can undermine efforts to prepare a student for productive citizenship. At any age, money spent to prevent malnutrition will save the school system money, and in the long run save the society as a whole much more.

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The economic analysis presented in the Biology section, above, applies to just about everything else. If you think you can't afford to do whatever it takes to help your community members succeed in school, you have to think more clearly about economics. If you have a lot of people who are not succeeding in school, you are going to have a lot of people who are costing your community money, rather than paying taxes, throughout their entire lives -- people on welfare, people in various institutions, people in prison. You can do a lot of whatever you need to do to help several students succeed for what it costs to keep one person in prison -- and if you count the cost of the damage that people do that leads to their being in prison, plus the cost of catching them and convicting them, you can help quite a few more. Even if your main focus is saving the taxpayers' money, one of the best ways to do that is to make sure that all the students in your community succeed in school.

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Good Quality Day Care Helps Children Succeed in School

"High quality child care positively affects children's cognitive and social skills [at least] through the second grade, according to a major national study by researchers at four universities.... Children in quality care programs when they were 3 and 4 years old scored better on math, language and social skills development through the early elementary years than children in poor-quality care."

Results of a long-term study indicated that quality day care makes children less prone to misbehavior when they go on to school, especially if most children in their center got along with each other.

Quality day care especially benefits children from poor families and those whose mothers have relatively little education. 

"Child care policies at both the federal and state levels should be revised to encourage higher quality programs. Our current policies do not encourage higher quality services. For example, child care subsidy approaches which encourage the use of lower quality informal and unregulated care are harmful to the children at most risk."

Day Care Matters: ABC News Report

Cost, Quality & Outcomes Study

Joint CQO Study Press Release

Another Viewpoint: Mothers Make Better Mothers

"Come Home, Mom"

"A mother is not expendable and to aggrandize her role in society as an income-earning professional is to demean the importance of the role of  mothering full time. Society should be working on how to enable every mother to be the most excellent mother to her children. One's profession does not cease to exist because one undertakes the task of mothering full time. However, when one pursues work outside the home, mothering is completely compromised. Mothering is not a part-time occupation, regardless of what anyone may say. Young children need full-time mothering if they are to develop into healthy human beings." 

--Dr. Mizin Kawasaki, Pediatrician 

Pathways to School Improvement: Early Childhood Education

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Quality Preschools Help Students Succeed in Later Grades

In a study done by the INREAL teacher training program in Colorado, group of specially trained speech and language specialists were assigned to a randomly selected sample of preschool and kindergarten classrooms; specialists with comparable amounts of experience but traditional training were assigned to a sample of randomly selected control classrooms. They reported that the INREAL training had led to a statistically significant improvement in the children's learning, which was reflected by a reduction in their need for special educational services in the first through third grades.

When the children were followed into First, Second and Third Grade in the public schools, children from preschool and/or kindergarten classrooms served by INREAL-trained therapists needed half as many special educational services as did the children from control preschool and kindergarten classrooms. This was true even though none of the staff of the elementary schools knew about the existence of the study until the follow-up ended. 

Retention in grade (commonly called "failing") was included as a special educational service, because it costs the school system money. When the cost of all the special educational services was added up, and the savings for the INREAL children was subtracted from the cost of the special training, it became clear that the system had recovered its investment in its teachers by the end of the first grade, with substantial savings over the total three-year follow-up period. 

The INREAL study involved several suburban and small town school systems in Colorado, a mixed population of students. Another study, the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, also found highly significant benefits of preschool program, as compared to children who had no formal preschool. This study focused on African Americans born in poverty and at high risk of failing in school. The investigators have been able to follow the students over the years, interviewing them periodically and examining school, social services, and arrest records. 

The results showed that the preschool experience had many, long lasting, beneficial effects. For example, comparing the two groups at age 27, only one fifth as many of the individuals in the preschool program group had been arrested five or more times, and only one third as many had ever been arrested for drug dealing. Further, members of the preschool program group were far more successful economically, as measured by salary and home ownership, for example, and somewhat more successful educationally.

The researchers conclude "These findings indicate that a high-quality preschool program such as High/Scope's can significantly increase children's future contributions to families and society." 

INREAL training is not currently available.

Some of the methods used by INREAL are also taught by other groups:

Active Learning: The Way Children Construct describes some of the principles and methods of the High Scope approach.

"Reasoning is developed as children are doing things that interest them. The goal of  constructivist education is to create an atmosphere that inspires children to explore, to experiment, to make mistakes, and have wonderful ideas." Early Education Resources and Links from the Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa.

An international group with similar goals and some of the same methods is The Consultative Group on Early Childhood Care and Development.

ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education

Including Handicapped Children in Head-Start Classrooms

Pathways to School Improvement: Early Childhood Education

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No amount of early nutritional and emotional support will remove all the differences between children attending school. Currently, our schools make ridiculous assumptions about students, and then panic when students deviate from these imaginary "norms." We can put this into perspective by comparing the development of our schooling systems with the development of modern manufacturing.

When skilled craftsmen built an entire finished product there was no need to be concerned about whether a particular part of one item was the same as the corresponding part of another: What mattered was that the various parts of each particular item fit each other, so that they would work together successfully. 

When Eli Whitney developed the practice of building rifles with interchangeable parts, a new standard was required: All instances of a certain part had to be nearly identical. In modern assembly-line manufacturing, interchangeable parts are required, and variation from one instance of a part to another causes all sorts of problems. 

Modern methods of quality improvement systematically reduce that variation, increasing quality and reducing costs.

A similar change in methods has occurred in education -- with much less happy results. When students of different ages and levels of mastery of various subjects were schooled together in a small local facility, differences among the students in the class -- for example differences in the rate of learning some particular subject -- were no real problem. There were always students working at quite different levels in any particular subject.

When modern educational systems were developed, with much larger school populations and students assigned to classes matched by age, with everyone in the class studying the same level of the same topic at the same time -- when, in other words, the schooling system came to resemble an industrial assembly line -- differences among students became problems for the system. In this case, efforts to reduce variation among students succeed, but with tragic consequences. We "fail" students who can't keep up, for whatever reason, and we keep on failing them again and again until they "drop out." That makes them no longer the problem of the school system -- they become the problem of the courts and the probation officers and the welfare system.

Contrasting the amazing successes of modern quality management systems in industry with the shocking failures of modern school systems reveals a difference that is one of the main causes of the current educational disaster. Successful industrial quality improvement systems treat all the human beings involved in the process as individuals worthy of respect, and marshal everyone's work toward reducing variability in their physical products. Modern hideously unsuccessful schooling systems treat human students as if they were defective parts when they fail to keep up with the learning rate expected for the class; and when teachers refuse to give up on slower students, those teachers are treated as if they were malfunctioning machinery.

We don't just require students to keep up with their classmates: We require that they all be interested in learning the same topics at the same time -- topics we choose. Since, in general, students learn much faster than their teachers, and since people generally learn things they are interested in better than things they are forced to study, students should be given much more say in the matter of what they study than we now give them. Of course, schools and teachers and other fountains of wisdom should always be allowed to invite students to consider favored topics, and try to show students why those topics are worthy of consideration or even devotion. But we really have to stop pretending that we know what everyone should learn, and how and when they should learn it -- and we certainly have to stop dumping people out of the educational process whenever they persist in declining our invitations.

Once upon a time, a long time ago (a decade or so) it took a whole year for human beings to develop more new scientific and technical knowledge than anyone could learn in a lifetime. Even back then in the good old days, our schooling systems didn't work very well for many students. Now it's worse; but we still have people assigned to the job of dictating what everyone should be required to learn. Since it is no longer possible for anyone to understand most of what human beings consider important, these people need new job descriptions. 

Some schools are breaking out of these traps, by applying the quality improvement  systems developed for industry. Rather than being treated as (potentially defective) products of the system, the students are recognized as the workers who actually accomplish the learning that is the whole point of the schooling system. The community pays the school system to help students learn. Each student has a unique task, which only they can accomplish: to learn whatever they can about whatever they want to learn about. Teachers become managers, who are there to do whatever they can to help the workers do their jobs.

Alternative Assessment In Science

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books -- hints -- web

The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, by Semour Papert; Basic Books, 1994. Rather than using computers to teach the same old curriculum even more mechanically, some visionary teachers have used computers creatively to enrich learning. Computer-based media can let children master areas of knowledge that are now inaccessibly difficult, and self directed study can support diverse learning styles let students to take charge of their own learning.

The Power of Mindful Learning, by Ellen J. Langer; Addison Wesley, 1997. After years of research, Langer has concluded that many of the problems with current schooling systems can be traced to seven commonly held myths, and teachers' efforts apply them. The myths are simply stated: The basics must be learned so well that they become second nature; paying attention means being focused on one thing at a time; delaying gratification is important; rote memorization is necessary; forgetting is a problem; intelligence is knowing "what's out there''; and there are right and wrong answers. Langer counters with five principles of her own, the basis of what she calls "sideways learning'': openness to novelty; alertness to distinction; sensitivity to different contexts; implicit, if not explicit, awareness of multiple perspectives; and orientation in the present. She offers alternative approaches based on her five principles, with startling results.

Interview with Ellen Langer on The Power of Mindful Learning


Developmental learning "eschews molding a mind as if it were a passive medium and instead tries to collaborate with the student's developmental patterns. If the student does not progress in the expected way, the developmental teacher tries to understand what happened, rather than branding the student as a failure." 

Semour Papert -- The Children's Machine, p. 40.

Web Sites

Links to Quality Initiatives in Schools

Publications of the U.S. Department of Education
Educational Research and Improvement Reports and Studies

Extending Learning Time for Disadvantaged Students
Volume 1: Summary -- Volume 2: Promising Practices

Resources for Homeschooling
John's Homeschool Resource Page
Not Back to School Camp -- Grace Lewellen's Page

Learn Haven

Net Quest Learning Links

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