A few years ago, the school district where I teach became enamored with a book called The One Thing by real estate mogul Gary Keller. Keller argued that, rather than spreading out effort over many different objectives, the secret to success was to identify and focus on the one thing that mattered most for achieving your goal. Taken with this insight, our superintendent asked every principal in the district to determine the “One Thing” that would be the unifying focus of their campus efforts. When teachers returned from summer break that year, we learned about this new initiative and the specific cause that our principal had selected for us to rally around.
Our high school wasn’t going to focus on helping students develop better problem-solving skills, increasing student engagement, or even on aligning our curriculums more closely to the demands of standardized tests. In fact, we weren’t going to focus on anything that would be relevant to the majority of our students. Our One Thing was to improve the educational outcomes of our “critical students”—the lowest achieving five percent who had not passed standardized tests and were most at risk of not graduating. In a school with over 2,000 students, we were told that improving the scores of our bottom 100 was what mattered most.
While a bit more blunt than is typical, this was only stating a hidden reality of which most educators were already aware. Public education, today, is far more concerned with raising the grades and test scores of its lowest achieving students than with pushing all students towards a higher standard. Of course, schools would love everyone to learn more and they are eager to highlight any academic achievement that they can use to create the illusion of educational excellence. But in a world of finite resources, the priorities are quite clear. Whenever a school has to choose, they will sacrifice the benefit of the many to focus on the least successful few.
Many would argue that this is how it should be—that schools should embrace the Rawlsian ethic and direct the majority of their attention to supporting the least advantaged, whose environments or talents make them less likely to become successful students. Such sentiments are particularly common in education, where I’ve often heard teachers make the case that: Good students don’t really need you. They will do well no matter what. The students who really need you are the ones who don’t care about school. As progressive as this sounds, it speaks to a culture that does not actually believe that the subjects they teach matter.
Considering the needs of each student, why should so much emphasis be placed on teaching algebra to a high school student who still can’t multiply single-digit numbers in his head. By high school, most “critical students” are years behind their peers. They often don’t know the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship, where China is relative to Australia, or that “I” is supposed to be capitalized. Barring an enormous and unlikely investment of energy, they will not enter a field that requires academic competency. This is not to say that motivated students should not have access to remediation. But the vast majority of critical students would benefit far more from getting work experience in a specific trade than from prolonging this painful educational charade. It seems foolish for a teacher to pay less attention to students who are likely to need higher-level academic skills in their future, so that he can pull uninterested students aside to quiz them on the parts of the cell.
By contrast, most other students need to be challenged to go beyond superficial task work. But, the higher-order skills that high schools should be focused on developing require a level of attention, rigor, and skilled feedback that remediation-focused teachers are not able to offer. Consequently, the majority of high school graduates today are not adequately prepared. A 2010 report revealed that of the 23 member universities in the California State University system, all of which demand a college-preparatory curriculum completed with at least a B average, “68 percent of the 50,000 entering freshmen at CSU campuses require remediation in English/language arts, math, or both.” And if these same standards were applied by the California Community Colleges, “their remediation rates would exceed 80 percent.”
The report (which comes from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Southern Regional Education Board) goes on to argue that most other states would have similar findings. Indeed, according to former professor and United States Assistant Secretary of Education, Chester E. Finn Jr.:
For years now, the College Board, the American College Testing program, and, more recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress have supplied data indicating that the percentage of 12th graders (or 12th-grade test-takers) who are truly ready for college coursework is somewhere below 40.
None of this is likely to surprise Americans. According to 2018 Gallup polls, only three percent of Americans thought high school graduates were “very well prepared for college” and only five percent thought they were “very well prepared for work.” Most people sense that our education system is falling short, yet we struggle to identify many of the most obvious causes and their solutions. Most notably, by placing a disproportionate emphasis on the education of less capable students, schools downgrade the education of everyone else. Teachers lower their standards and their role shifts from academic and developmental experts to that of activity-organizers. Mainstream students skate by without ever cultivating a capacity for logical analysis, synthesis, written argument, or any of the competencies that will be most valuable after high school. Even Advanced Placement courses are often forced to lower their standards, as many parents realize that the mainstream track is inadequate and decide to push their kids into classes they aren’t prepared for.
This is, perhaps, best seen in the effects of American special education policies. Over the past few decades, schools have embraced practices of inclusion (also known as mainstreaming) which prioritize keeping students with disabilities in regular classes as much as possible. As of 2016, 60 percent of students with disabilities spent 80 percent of their day or more in “mainstream” classes. A number of studies point to the benefits of inclusion on special education students, but there is considerably less research about the effects of inclusion on the rest of the class. What evidence there is indicates that mainstreaming students with disabilities tends to decrease the time teachers spend on instruction, while increasing the time spent on classroom management and the likelihood that teachers will change professions. Such negative consequences are consistent with my own experience. Even more, they are obvious when you consider the practical implications of special education policies.
In America today, nearly every mainstream class features a number of special education students who have their own Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and/or their own 504 plan (designed to support students with disabilities). Despite their differing legal origins, the tangible effects of IEPs and 504s are basically the same. Both are legal documents that require teachers to individualize a student’s educational experience and provide additional support beyond what is typical. This support comes either in the form of accommodations, which require teachers to change how they present information to the student, or modifications, which require teachers to change what they teach altogether. Common accommodations include offering extended time on assignments, reducing the number of answer choices on assignments, shortening assignments, offering breaks, frequent checks for understanding, preferential seating, and providing class notes to the student. Common modifications include creating different test questions, making alternate assignments, and grading based on a different standard.
Any of these adjustments can be necessary to meet a specific student's needs. For example, a dyslexic student will need more time and support on reading assignments. Often, such students can succeed academically with a little understanding and adaptation from their teachers. Still, many students with disabilities are far more demanding. Too often, the accommodations and modifications we expect from teachers are unrealistic and show no concern for the broader learning environment.
Teachers often have anywhere from five to 10 IEP and 504 students in any given class and as many as seven classes each day. They struggle to keep track of each student’s modifications and accommodations, to document how they met each requirement, and to ensure that each is provided subtly enough that other students won’t notice. All the while, staff meetings and school emails constantly remind teachers to do everything possible to help struggling students pass. Every incentive seems to pull their attention away from developing high quality instruction and challenging the class at large. Eventually the dams break. Overwhelmed teachers decide that rather than trying to remember which students get fill-in-the-blank notes, they will give them to all students. Rather than remembering who gets extended time, they’ll accept everyone’s late work without penalty, and the entire class will move at a slower pace so that assignments don’t stack up on those who have more time. Rather than creating a separate study guide for their accommodation students, they give all students a sneak-peek study guide that lists exactly what is on the test.
Still, many students, “mainstream” and not, will have failing grades near the end of the grading period, and few teacher sins elicit as much grief as a “high” failure rate. So, teachers learn to fill courses with easy completion grades and to spend the last week of any grading period pestering students to turn in missing work. Mainstream students come to expect all of these allowances. Thus, any teacher intent on maintaining higher standards will have to do so against the grain of a campus culture in which students have never taken their own notes or had tests with essay and short-answer sections. To stay sane, most teachers succumb to the pressure and begin making a succession of compromises. This can be quite devastating, as illustrated by the comments of a former teacher who was a beta-reader for my upcoming book:
Reading from your education experience made me revisit my own, which was mostly an enjoyable nostalgia until your 504/IEP section gave me minor PTSD! … This was definitely one of the things that drove me out. Keeping up was too much and lowering my standards was too defeating.
Despite all these costs, there is reason to suspect that many struggling 504/IEP students would be better served outside the mainstream classroom. In one recent study, Lynn Fuchs et al took 203 students with disabilities who were behind in fourth grade math and placed them into one of two groups. The first group received targeted special education techniques outside the mainstream class. The other group stayed in a regular classroom environment, with accommodations. These interventions remained in place for three years. In each year, the group who received specialized intervention, rather than inclusive instruction, tended to show “significantly stronger learning and markedly smaller post-intervention achievement gaps.”
But that is not even the most significant implication of this study. While students with specialized intervention didn’t fall as far behind as their peers in inclusive instruction, the size of the achievement gap still grew for students of both groups. That is, over the course of three years, from fourth to sixth grade, the gap between these struggling students and their classmates grew even larger, regardless of the type of instruction students received. One can only assume that these gaps would grow even wider and more discouraging as students continued their educational careers.
None of this is surprising when you consider the vast differences in many students' home lives. The unfortunate reality is that ability and upbringing really do matter. Even the best teachers usually won’t make a dent against a home environment that does not value education. This is not to suggest that schools should ignore the needs of students who are less talented, have harder home lives, or come from less academic pedigrees. Indeed, it is necessary and wonderful that teachers are passionate about trying to reach such students. But we can’t expect teachers to reliably compensate for large voids. Even more, we can’t stunt the development of all students in the name of this naive pursuit.
I recently spoke with a friend of mine—a second grade teacher with over 30 years of experience. Right now, about a third of the students in her class have not been inside a classroom since March of 2020, while the rest attended school in-person for most of last year. Try as teachers might, six-year-olds are just not well-equipped to learn online. Thus, my friend’s class is made up of students at vastly different levels. Those who attended school or had a support system that facilitated learning at home are prepared for a second-grade curriculum. But they are not getting one. As directed, this teacher has turned her second grade class into a review of first grade. Rather than identify and separate students to provide instruction based on their present need, her school has determined that all students should be taught at the lowest common denominator.
As calls for equality of outcome gain steam and schools make plans to reduce educational gaps that have been exacerbated by 18 months of virtual learning, we’d do well to remember the predictable costs of pretending we can make everything fair. Mass education will never be a perfect fit for everyone. Schools have to identify the competencies and attitudes that are most valuable and optimize in a way that brings the most possible students to high, yet reachable standards. When high school students fall too far behind and decide they aren’t interested in catching up, they should be able to pursue a vocational track that pushes them to develop other meaningful skills. These students will be far more likely to apply themselves if we give them relevant options like work apprenticeships, trade programs, and so on.
At its core, this is about maintaining the integrity of the learning environment. Too many in education today have no sense of the value that certain skills and habits of mind can have in people’s lives (or that these are the skills of which a high school diploma is supposed to indicate mastery). Education, to them, is just a prop to be given out in hopes of advancing a person's social positioning. They are willing to compromise standards at every turn in order to manufacture achievements that society has predetermined as "good." But in the process, they devalue those outcomes and the surrounding educational culture.
Consequently, earning a high school diploma is no longer evidence of attaining any baseline level of scholastic competency. It means nothing. This makes the college degree seem even more important because it is the first actual means to academic distinction. To meet the growing demand, colleges have made themselves more accessible to unprepared students while also becoming far more expensive. Rather than democratizing education, the futile attempt to offset every inequity has helped create an enormous pay wall. Students now have to go into debt in order to develop skills they would have once developed in high school.
When we prioritize the least successful students over their more well-prepared peers, we invariably lower standards for all students. Educators focus on gaming the system to produce "high" grades and graduation rates and in the process, everyone loses sight of why learning matters in the first place. Schools only work when teachers believe in the value of their lessons and students feel responsible for their own learning. In the absence of those vital components, everyone is less likely to succeed.
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