Some Kids Have To Fail: A History of Labels (Part 1)

As long as there have been tax-supported public schools in the U.S., some children and youth have failed.  “Experts,” educators, and policymakers have given names for those students who left school in the late 19th century, early 20th century, and now. And those names for failing students and their early departures from schools have changed over time mirroring reform movements and policy shifts in perceptions of who was (and is) responsible for the failure.

A history of labels for these “misfits” can be summed up quickly: blame the kids for lacking intelligence, blame the kids and their families for not adjusting to schools, and blame the schools for failing students. I describe in a later post where U.S. educators are now in describing those students who fail to fit into the age-graded school.

Students who failed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries

Terms used over a century ago to describe those urban elementary school students who failed academically in their age-graded school focus entirely on an individual’s genetics, character and attitudes. Here were some of the common phrases educators and policymakers used: born-late, sleepy-minded, wandering, stubborn, immature, slow, dull   (PDF DeschenesCubanTyack-1).

Children who left urban elementary schools were mostly children of immigrants and young ( 10 to 12 years old); they went to work immediately in a rapidly industrializing economy. When reformers of the day saw that children were in the streets cadging coins, selling newspapers, and working in factories,they lobbied state legislatures for child labor laws to prevent the young from entering the workforce. Helen Todd, for example, inspected factories in Chicago looking for underage children. She found boys and girls making paper boxes,stripping tobacco leaves, running errands, and shellacking canes in what even then were unsafe and unhealthy workplaces.

Todd asked the young boys and girls would they rather work or go to school if their father had a good job and they did not have to work to bring money into the family. Eighty percent of the child-workers said they would rather work than go to school.Why, she asked? Some answers they gave:

“School ain’t no good. When you works a whole month at
school, the teacher she gives you a card to take home that says how you
ain’t any good. And yer folks hollers on yer an’ hits yer.”

Another told Todd: “You never- understands what they tells you in school, and you can
learn right off to do things in a factory.”

Repeatedly, child-workers told Todd that teachers beat them for not learning, or not listening to teacher or forgetting the correct page (PDF DeschenesCubanTyack-1).

In these decades, the age-graded elementary school (less than 10 percent went to high school then) required students to move through the required curriculum during the school year and learn the skills and content demanded for the next grade. Those children who could not keep up the pace because of language, cultural differences, family issues, or other reasons, performed poorly and soon left school. In effect, the age-graded school produced “misfits,” a retrospective term seldom used then or now.

Early to mid-20th century

With the discovery and development of intelligence testing, a spinoff of mass testing of draftees in World War I, a generation of Progressive reformers applied the lessons learned from sorting adults for the U.S. Army to public schools. And a legion of new terms entered policy-driven reformers’ and educators’ vocabularies (DeschenesCubanTyack-1) to describe children who did poorly in school. Common phrases were:

[P]upils of low I. Q., low division pupils, ne’er-do-wells. sub-z group, limited, slow learner, laggards, overage, backward, occupational student, mental deviates, backward, occupational student. mental deviates, and inferior.

To these Progressive reformers and policymakers, failing students simply did not have smarts. The I.Q. tests confirmed that “fact.” The instructional solution to these students was to teach them different content in a different way in a different place. The language of science provided an objective rationale for sorting students into different curricula (or tracks). And these reform-minded Progressives made the age-graded school even more efficient.

Late-20th to early 21st centuries 

Beginning in the 1960s, especially after poverty was rediscovered by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, “culturally deprived” entered the language of reformers, policymakers, and educators. With many cities now de facto segregated even after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and obvious inequities existing between social classes  the phrase became code for black, brown, and other children living in urban ghettos. As federal funding of programs sharply increased in the mid-1960s, civil rights reformers fought against applying the label to minority and poor children because of the racism embedded in the phrase: low-income, mostly minority families and children have no culture. By the early 1970s, the label exited reformers’ vocabulary to be replaced by “the disadvantaged.”

With the introduction of “disadvantaged,” the adverb in front of it became contested. Socially disadvantaged? Educationally disadvantaged? The former pointed the finger at families  sending unprepared children to school, thus becoming the prime cause for low academic performance. But the use of “educationally disadvantaged” by reformers brought the school, its rules, culture, and staff under the microscope. This occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the growth of the reform-driven “effective schools” movement. And has lasted since with “No Excuses” reformers in the past decade. Nonetheless, labeling children failing school continued.

By the late-1980s, another term, “at risk,” became popular in describing children and youth that earlier generations had called “misfits.” For some analysts it is a borrowed phrase from A Nation at Risk (1983) and applied to low-income children and youth of color who receive an inequitable schooling. Others see the phrase coming from epidemiology where individuals and groups heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer, and other ills display “at risk” factors. Whatever the source, the phrase is now commonly used among policymakers, reformers, and educators.

So here is a continuing story of different generations of reformers using catch-phrases to salvage the rejects produced by the rigidly organized age-graded schools. Over time, the phrases have morphed from indictments of individual failings to searching examination of the deficit-ridden school in meeting the needs of those who have received (and continues to receive) an inequitable schooling.

The next post looks at the use of “at risk” to describe children today.

6 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools

6 responses to “Some Kids Have To Fail: A History of Labels (Part 1)

  1. Hi Larry,

    Thanks as always for the informed, thoughtful and carefully constructed post.

    My own thoughts are nowhere near as carefully constructed at present, but I’m going to run with them here.

    I think I’m the first person in my fathers family in well over a century…which is as far back as we can find records… to have not live in tenement housing. For generations, until my grandmother was unexpected
    Y gifted a house, we lived, loved were born and died in tenements. In the poorest part of our city.

    We left school to work, from necessity. We turned down opportunity, scholarships, lacking the financial capital to avail of them.

    In my twenties, I became the first family member to attend university.

    It’s so something I’ve reflected on, recently, in terms of capital. Social, knowledge and financial capital and how they have impacts on learning and outcomes.

    Lack of housing security, dangerous housing, health stress. Lowered nutrition. No books at home. Lowered horizons of expectation. A social network that offers no advantage in accessing education and is geared towards day to day survival.

    No educational toys, really, little help with homework, a comparative lack of cognitive challenge or help in the local environment. A dangerous, insecure neighbourhood with high levels of crime and violence.

    Part of what still engages me, and makes clarity difficult is the bewildering complexity of the relationship between poverty and education. We are label making, pattern recognising, stereotype reliant machines. Our cognitive machinery sorts and sifts and creates categories and patterns. Nd we use these labels, as a shorthand, with Ll it’s limitations, to understand and navigate our world.

    But the reality is complex, varied, involved and involving. Difficult to understand, and slippery to keep a grip on from all sides of the equation when trying to cope with in institutional and educational contexts.

    I was disadvantaged. Poor. Culturally impoverished in quite specific but important senses.

    And it’s with an overwhelming feeling of sadness that I think of how conversations about my access to, engagement with and problems with education were circumscribed.

    Even as a young child, I had an awareness of how incomplete and simplifying my teachers engagement with me was. Of how much more complex what I needed, and the path I needed to travel were than the relatively simplistic and one dimensional reflections of myself I discerned in th policies, practices and discussions of my educators.

    I visited a museum recently, which specialised in the history if my part of the city. Something I had not seen described. We don
    T leave much of a mark in our passing. We are invisible.

    I felt real and genuine emotion, seeing my families lacquer, the houses, people. Children, moments and existence up on walls, to be viewed, seen, recognised. Silent lives lived in historical quietude. Consigned to a herniated of history.

    Thanks for writing Larry. Thanks for thinking, and talking, and looking and putting it up on the wall to be seen.

  2. JoeN

    The current favourite in the UK is NEETs. (Not in education, employment or training.)

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