By MAUREEN DOWNEY
I still tense up when I recall the day in fourth grade when my classmate Kenny couldn’t decipher the word “definite” on the blackboard. He stood there for what seemed like hours, his face growing redder, tears welling up in his eyes, while the increasingly irate teacher demanded over and over that he read the word aloud.
Kenny simply couldn’t make any sense of the letters on the board, and it seemed, even to a roomful of 10-year-olds, to be an extreme act of cruelty to insist he do so. Kenny pleaded to be allowed to sit down, to go to the bathroom, to go home. But the teacher made him stand in front of the 40 of us until he literally crumpled to the floor.
In our eight years together in a small, urban, Catholic elementary school, Kenny struggled with reading, and I suspect now that he may have been dyslexic. The words written on the board likely made as much sense to him as Egyptian hieroglyphics.
I think about Kenny whenever people lament to me how wonderful schools were a generation ago, how kids were better disciplined and learned so much more. That belief seems more grounded in nostalgia —- or selective amnesia —- than fact. Yes, schools worked well for capable students, but schools —- and communities —- ignored the problems and special needs of many others.
Then, schools expected all kids to all learn in the same way. No one thought schools should calibrate instruction to fit a student’s particular strengths and weaknesses. The kid either got with the program or got left behind.
My own challenge was —- and still is —- sitting still. My punishment for being the class “fidget” was —- you guessed it —- having to sit even longer through recess and lunch. Today, I take frequent strolls around my office room even when on deadline because I process better when I’m moving.
Thankfully, schools are recognizing and capitalizing on youngsters’ need to fidget. An innovative program in Minnesota equips classrooms with stand-up desks and adjustable stools that enable students to shift position.
In Naperville, Ill., the school district has incorporated exercise equipment into the day and into classrooms and seen a rise in academic performance. The system’s “learning readiness” PE classes are cited in the research of Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”
In the past, schools also didn’t do very well by minority children, often failing to see past biases and stereotypes to the student’s talents. I think about Isabel, a classmate of mine in a high school where students were segregated by so-called cognitive abilities.
After taking the school’s entrance exam, I was lucky enough to land in the advanced track, but Isabel —- whose family had come over from Cuba —- was in the lowest track. Her father, who had been an engineer in Cuba but worked in a warehouse here, argued that Isabel could do higher-level work, but had not fared well on the test because English was her second language. It took two years, but he finally proved his case after Isabel led the school in science and math performance. She’s a physician now.
An assumption advanced by critics of public education is that there once was a golden era where teachers demanded more and students delivered it. Such critics usually date the demise of that golden period to immediately after they graduated high school.
Under that theory, the country’s best-educated Americans should be its elders. But the National Assessment of Adult Literacy shows that adults age 65 and older have the lowest literacy.
The assessment rates literacy in three areas. Prose measures an adult’s ability to understand news stories and instructional materials. Documents assesses their ability to read payroll forms, maps and food labels. Quantitative measures how well they understand numbers embedded in printed materials and looks at such skills as balancing a checkbook, figuring out a tip or completing an order form.
Between 1992 and 2003, the performance of white adults in prose and documents stayed the same but rose in quantitative literacy. During that same period, blacks saw improvement in all three literacy measures, most decisively in quantitative, where they recorded a 16-point rise.
My point is not that schools are perfect today, only that they were not perfect 25 years ago, either. I bet my classmate Kenny would agree.