Neatly-dressed, carrying a large notebook and a couple of bulky textbooks, Victor would smile at my “good morning,” walk to the rear of my high school U.S. history class and sit down. He would take out paper, open a book, and begin writing and drawing. Victor would copy page after page of a textbook–but barely understood what he was writing although his sketches of photographs in the text were stunning copies. His tested reading level was below fourth grade yet he was a junior in a big city high school.
Victor had learned to survive in school by keeping his mouth shut, acting studious, and turning in work that was incomprehensible. He would attack each chapter of the textbook as if it were an enemy to be conquered. What he could decipher, he seldom understood. He failed every single test that I gave to the class.
I contacted Victor’s mother and told her what I saw of Victor in my class and the terrible time he had with any reading assignment. I stressed that while I could help him in understanding the main ideas in the book I was not a reading specialist.
She got angry, going into a heated description of Victor’s difficult years in elementary and junior high schools. She urged me to give him extra assignments–anything to help him pass. She was determined to have Victor complete high school.
Hard as I tried, Victor showed little improvement. On his final report card, he received high marks in behavior from his other teachers but Ds’ and Fs’ in achievement. I failed him.
Pernatha sat in the first row of the same U.S. history class that year. Unlike Victor, she enjoyed reading, had an opinion on every question I asked, and thoroughly enjoyed history. She did her homework most of the time, especially assignments that called for her to imagine herself as an historical character.
In class, she was independent-minded and took positions that often ran counter to her classmates. She had the unusual ability for a teenager to think aloud and not be overly worried about what her peers thought if she erred. Her essay answers on tests were the best in the class. When she reported to the class on her family autobiography, she enthralled her classmates with the details of a family a generation away from their roots as North Carolina sharecroppers. When I started an after-school History Club she was one of the first students to join. Her grades in other subjects were in the high B range except for the A that she earned in my class.
Whenever I would bring up the possibility of her going to college and my willingness to help her complete applications and write a recommendation, she changed the subject. I spoke with her mother and told her of Pernatha’s strong speaking and writing skills and my belief that she would benefit from college. Pernatha’s mother was pleased by what I said but felt that college was unaffordable and the family needed her daughter’s financial help for younger brothers and sisters after she graduated high school.
STORIES OF BLAME?
Teacher bashers can righteously point at me and others who had Victor for not helping him understand better what he read. I could be blamed for not pushing Pernatha enough to consider going to college.
For those who want to blame parents, the two mothers are candidates; one steadfastly wanted her son to graduate even if her son could barely read the daily newspaper and the other saw Pernatha’s responsibilities to younger brothers and sisters more important than her daughter’s future.
There even may be those who blame Victor for enduring school rather than leaving it and Pernatha for not resisting her mother’s wishes. Finger-pointers have much material to use in these stories.
STORIES FOR REFORMERS?
With all the talk about how important schools are to an improved economy (the Nation at Risk, 1983; No Child Left Behind, 2002) and everyone has to go to college, where do teachers of current Victors and Pernathas fit into school reform?
They are the targets. Mainstream wisdom of school reform today assumes that teachers will work harder if standards are raised, more tests are given, pay-for-performance occurs, failing schools are closed, and more charters are available. If all of these reforms happen, then teachers will teach more, faster, and better. That assumption is false.
The Victors and Pernathas of urban high schools are already motivated to achieve their goals; their parents want a good life for their children and do what they can to help them, given their resources. Many (but not all) of their teachers already do the best they can within classrooms of diverse abilities and their hectic schedules. National tests or the other reforms would not have turned me or Victor around; nor would it have spurred me to greater efforts to convince Pernatha to go to college.
What is needed to engage teachers of Victors and Pernathas now is not a one-size-fits all national strategy of school reform based upon fear of penalties but a flexible one that capitalizes on varied strengths of students, their families, and teachers. What our leaders offer us is off-the-rack, bargain-basement clothes that fit all sizes instead of national strategies that fit different shaped students and communities.