Let me preface my response on the fact that I am I am a mom and a scientist. I dabble in education policy because it has such a profound impact on my household and my community.
So why are so many students two, three, or more grade levels behind? I am particularly concerned because the vast majority are male and students of color. I have seen how this hurts families and school communities. People in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area only really like winners, and if you have a student that is behind, people don’t like to talk about it. I think this leads to problem number one. Why don’t parents and parent groups obsess over this issue? Policy folks may think I am crazy, but I am out there in the schools and in the meetings. Some groups bring it forward but we don’t stay focused on the why of below grade level kids. We just look at data and keep looking.
Don’t faint, but I don’t think data can help with this issue. I think the problem is communication. Usually the way parents find out is through a statewide test letter mailed to their home, which has a wonky explanation page similar to the one attached to tax forms. A few lucky parents are informed by parent teacher conferences. During the conference, the teacher will rely heavily on education terminology, which makes it hard to accurately surmise how bad a situation the student faces. This poor information continues until eighth grade when the system sends students that cannot read or properly calculate simple math problems to high school. We have lived like this for decades and tried the latest intervention over and over without making it clear to the parent and student what is really happening.
First, if a student is two to three grade levels behind in elementary school, we should intervene swiftly and with an all-hands-on-deck approach. We need to have the highest-level administrator of school meet with the parents (this is always done for disciplinary action but rarely for academic intervention) and tell them how important it is to cure the problem. There should be a prescription (if we don’t know the solution, that is a bigger issue), such as go to Saturday school or mandatory after school sessions. We need to do a better job of diagnosing the student’s problem before we issue the medication (educational solution) to cure it. The actual reason they are behind and the steps, one through five, that will get them back on track. There needs to be deadlines that are measurable. The parents need to be engaged, and students need to understand what is happening. The meetings should have a simple chart with the milestones and a red “X” for items not being met and a green check mark for the items that are met. No more long diagnostic and professional reports to parents. A simple chart and, if progress can’t be made, bring in the specialist. The chart can be emailed weekly or texted, but the parents must respond affirmatively that they understand the progress report. The parents and students can be given homework to do at home too, but the majority of the intervention must take place under the supervision of a qualified professional.
Most affluent parents can afford to hire a specialist at the moment their student falls behind, and then back that up with a tutor. That is because they understand the first communication in the form of a state exam score or sit in the classroom and question the teacher to make sure their student is getting the proper attention. These parents intervene immediately and go into crisis mode until their child is on or above grade level. The key is to mimic this for all students utilizing the resources that can be provided at the school and district (if necessary). Too often the reason students stay behind is because no one has the laser and persistent focus on the family. We are so busy looking at data reports instead of talking to Jay and his guardian over and over about him being behind. We need to do this for all subjects, not just math and reading. We keep treating the symptoms and not the disease. A student failing science has hidden math application disease, which will later manifest itself.
Finally, we have begun to rely too much on email or these automated grade reporting systems. Anything automated for a student that is below grade level is not going to work. You need eye contact with the parent and student. No google classroom report or notes. Successful students had this type of contact at some point either in school or at home. Small groups or clubs after or during school is the only approach, and in some cases it will take one on one. If you see them slip, start back on step one. Some will say this is too expensive. We are wasting money now collecting a million data points with few results. Data does have a huge role for statewide and national policy. But districts, and in particular individual schools, spend too much time on this instead of saying we need Sally, Marcus, and Javier to get a prescription for help. Principal Hernandez needs to call Mr. and Mrs. Singh to discuss their daughter’s progress and go over the chart again. Our goal is to have her on grade level by January. Go back to preassessments to show parents where their kids started. The tools are available, but human contact is the only way to solve this ever persisting problem.