EdMedia Commons Archive

Why is There Little Academic Progress in Failing School Districts?

There are a lot of factors that hinder the academic skills and test results of our kids in failing districts today.  We’ve heard them for years:  inexperienced administrators, incompetent teachers, poor funding, lack of parental involvement, student violence and bullying, out dated textbooks, large class sizes and the list goes on.  Dr. Catherine Snow, reading and literacy researcher, reports that failing and minority school districts tend to have ineffective administrators and teachers. However, two factors seem to have been lost in the translation of benchmarks, due dates, running records, lesson plans and the lack of communication between the departments of a school district!  The first factor is prerequisites. Almost all academic areas involve building blocks that end with the mastery of that subject.  Missing, not comprehending or never being exposed to one or more of these building blocks can mean never achieving that skill!  That’s not the students’ fault!  Teachers take numerous classes in college but none seem to teach them a variety of ways to solve a problem so that they can reach all of their students. It’s not uncommon to encounter kindergarten programs requiring 5 year old children, who don’t know what letters are, who have never held a pencil or scissors and who have not come from homes enriched with experiences needed to succeed in school, to be expected to write about a story read to them in class. They start school at a disadvantage that becomes a gap too wide to close without intense intervention. 

The second factor that many educators have never heard of is working memory!  First described and modeled by Baddeley and Hitch, working memory is slowly creeping into the vocabulary of teachers. ADHD, Autistic and speech and language impaired children suffer from poor working memory skills with speech impaired children scoring the lowest. Many children who have not been identified with learning disabilities also suffer from weak working memory skills.  Why is working memory so important?  It’s the memory that allows us to function everyday and it’s the memory that allows us to learn new things. As adults it’s the memory that reminds us to pick up the clothes from the dry cleaners on the way home and  to pick up the kids from soccer practice at 5:00 pm.  Our working memory also allows us to hold information in the forefront of our brains to manipulate and use it.  An example would be a teacher saying a list of words like (edible, instant, horrible, rodent and hornet) and then asking the kids to put these words into alphabetical order. The kids have to remember and hold the words and then put them in alphabetical order.  The students didn’t get a chance to write the words down as they couldn’t anticipate what the task would be. This may not seem difficult to you as these are not difficult words however, if I chose words not in your vocabulary, it would make this task challenging for you, too.  If you are a second language learner, this task would be doubly challenging.  However, we asks kids to complete these types of tasks all day long in classrooms across America.  Imagine how this deficit would impact your ability to function in school.  How can you build on your prior knowledge and learn new things when your working memory is impaired?  Children can also have difficulty in visual working memory and reading working memory skills http://www.russellbarkley.org/index.htm. These are the children who are retained, scolded at home, lose self-esteem, who make little progress and who will drop out of school not realizing what is wrong with them and that they are not ”dumb!’ Too often many of these kids are poor Hispanic and African-Americans but this situation is definitely not limited to them. Think of all of the children who have ADHD, Autism and Speech Impairment in this country alone.  Superintendents often make cuts to departments without consulting the staff of that department and without understanding what they do!

At any rate, until districts understand the need to play catch up and to design curriculum to meet the needs of all children. it is doubtful that we will see any gains in academic progress across the USA!

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.