Creating a Gargantuan Pool of Low Skill Workers in America

Creating a Gargantuan Pool of Low Skill Workers in America

Creating a Gargantuan Pool of Low Skill Workers in America


If you wanted to create a system that limits educational options and consigns the vast majority of poor American children to continue to live in poverty, just look around you. Whether you live in urban or rural America, the results of an educational design which cripples young learners who are not among those most fortunate and nurtured are in evidence. It is not just corrupt inner-city schools which are part of this educational design; it is the school in your community.

Consider the recipe.

Begin with young children coming to school with incredible differences in nurturing, exposure, nutrition, oral language skills, motor skills, and home routines which support academic and social readiness. Poor children are more likely to attend preschools or childcare of lesser quality. Poor children are most likely to end up on the short end of experiences which support school readiness.

Many children enter school with less developed language, motor and social skills than their peers. Even in the early grades most American schools have been coerced into using curriculum-driven instructional systems in which teachers are expected to “cover” long lists of content expectations, far more in a year than any of the high performing school systems around the world. The race to keep up with instruction has begun.

A group of children with different ages, genders, experiences, and developmental readiness are now in a class which is far bigger than most class-size research would support (17 to 22 is recommended for K-2).

With one teacher, the classroom is organized using an old industrial model, with this wildly diverse group of children getting similar instruction within the allotted time. This old model was well designed for efficient delivery of instruction in a world (1910-40) in which most students were not expected to finish high school, become great readers or mathematicians, or consider higher education.

Covering far more content than teachers a century ago, and far more than higher performing nations, our less school-ready children begin to struggle. These students quickly determine that they are “not good at” important areas of learning including reading and/or mathematics.

Children learn best when given instruction with a little bit of challenge along with a high degree of success. Early readers should practice reading books in which they already know about 95% of the sight words. Higher degrees of difficulty cause the young learner to demotivate, give less time and effort to learning tasks, learn less, and misbehave more. Children with less developed skills can quickly disengage from learning even though they have incredible potential to succeed.

Teachers are asked to show that they are covering all the grade-level-content-expectations in their lesson plans. District assessments at the end of each quarter further pressure teachers to cover all content with all children, whether they are ready or not. Some schools require that teachers write the content expectations of the day on the board, so that visiting administrators can see if they are spending time on the scheduled content.

Some schools use scripted reading or math programs, which give direct teachers to use precise language to introduce a concept or skill, then an activity. All teachers at a grade-level are expected to be on the same lesson on the same day. All students are exposed to the same learning challenges in the same way, despite their considerable developmental differences.

Many teachers become expert at delivering lessons, following the script, and covering content. But they lose or fail to develop formative assessment skills which might allow them to carefully observe their students and adjust instruction to meet their individual needs.

Highly anxious to cover all their content expectations, teachers spend less time on building relationships, practicing school behaviors, practicing classroom routines, teaching social skills, or developing classroom culture. Highly anxious teachers help create highly anxious students who do not feel safe or connected to their teachers.

Art, music, time with nature, exercise, play, awareness of beauty, and the development of personal character are considered less important than preparation for state achievement tests. They are not a priority and are seldom discussed within the education community.

By the beginning of fourth grade, two thirds of American students are not reading at the proficient level which predicts long-term learning success. The vast majority of these children are unlikely to become good readers, love to learn, go on to advanced education, or become learners for life. We have institutionalized a pattern of failure which will keep most children unsuccessful in the information age.

Political and education leaders are outraged as the United States slips to successively lower levels in international comparisons. They call for more standardized testing and harsher evaluation of teachers.

Attempts to improve graduation rates by intervening with 9th grade students are consistently unsuccessful. Students without the experience of early learning success are far more likely to engage in risky behaviors, substance abuse, drop out of school, and find trouble with the law.

We still teach by racing through non-viable amounts of content rather than carefully building the skills children need to succeed. Our recipe has a predictable result. The majority of American children do not become proficient learners in the early grades. The majority do not fall in love with learning. For poor children the rates of success are abysmally low. These children are consigned to live without the learning skills that open the doors to opportunity and success. They are systematically prepared to be disengaged learners and low wage earners.

Bob Sornson is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation. Contact