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Class Notes
Believing every child can achieve
(Published March 21, 2005)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

Are good students born or made? Can all kids, not just some, learn? Can everyone achieve at a high level? Regular readers know these are questions I keep returning to, but I think it's time this debate is put to rest. All kids can learn. More importantly, all kids can learn well.

At a recent teachers' conference, the moderator started a session by saying, "Raise your hand if you believe all children can learn." Every hand went up. "Raise your hand if you believe all children can achieve at a high level." A lot of hands went down. That educators believe some kids just can't make it to a rigorous level is shocking.

Why is this shocking? After all, a lot of kids don't make it through high school. We've all seen the headlines about high dropout rates, low scores on international comparisons, etc. But that's not the question asked in the session. Kids fail for a lot of reasons. They fail because they don't come to school. They fail because they don't do the work. They fail because they have disabilities that prevent them from learning as well as other students. And sometimes they fail because their teacher gives up on them.

This last thing is the problem as teachers, we have little control over what kind of home lives our students have, we have little control over their choices outside of school, but we do have control over our opinions of kids' capabilities.

The moderator started probing. "Why can't all kids achieve at a high level?" The usual suspects came up. "Well, all kids can learn, but not everybody is going to get to a point where they could get into college. Some of these kids come from crazy homes. Some of these kids have special needs. Some of these kids are not motivated to learn."

All of this is true, but it does not excuse us from expecting and demanding the most from every child. Regardless of background or circumstance, every kid can succeed. No child is destined to fail.

I'm not saying that the reason kids fail is because their teachers are not trying hard enough. I'm no saint there are days when I come in and I'm not as prepared or energized as I could be. Teaching is a job that will vacuum up as much energy as you want to put into it, and if we are to be successful educating large numbers of kids, we need teachers as dedicated employees, not crusaders. There are not enough saintly fools willing to sacrifice their lives to teaching for every classroom or for every child, nor should there be. People who come to teaching thinking about saving souls will be chewed up, burnt out and will get out 50 percent of all teachers leave in the first five years. Teacher pay is low compared to other professional jobs, working with kids can be difficult, and Lord knows the D.C. public schools system has some challenges that you won't see in other office environments.

Expecting teachers to kill themselves for every child is a poor way to manage staff. But we can expect teachers to believe in the potential of every child.

Why is it important for all teachers to believe that all children can achieve at a high level? Because expectations are destiny. Numerous studies have shown that if you tell children that they are "gifted" in a subject, they do better at it. When a teacher is told that some of their kids, picked at random, are good at their subject, those kids get better grades and measurably learn more. This is because, like it or not, kids conform to our expectations of what they can do, and this is why believing that all kids can learn at a high level is so important.

The flip side is that if you believe a child can't reach a certain level, they won't in part because you won't teach and push them as hard. If, as a teacher, you are satisfied when a kid improves one grade level in reading, or masters half of the algebra curriculum in a year, like it or not, you communicate that to the kid, and that kid is happy having learned only half of what they needed. Sometimes it's overt a child fails an exam and you tell them that it's ok that they failed because they've learned a lot. Sometimes it's more subtle, like when you give a class an assignment that's not really at grade level. Many of our kids come to high school under-prepared, yet the world after high school is only getting more complicated.

The fact that not all kids have learned well in American high schools should not change our philosophy. We may not teach our best every day, or do everything we possibly could do for every child. What we can do is expect the best of ourselves and our kids, and believe that every child can achieve a high standard.

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Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2005, The Common Denominator