Column: Unless there's a plan for helping kids, we're failing

Public schools get an F when it comes to helping kids who have fallen behind academically. In eduspeak, the process of helping kids catch up is called remediating the students.

The problem with remediation is best illustrated by the facts. Kids who fall behind in the early grades in reading, writing or arithmetic continue to have problems learning all the way through school. They never catch up. They tend to get in trouble and become our future dropouts. All too often, students who are not successful in first grade never achieve success in public school.

School policies, teachers and administrators seem to support passing failing students on to the next grade rather than holding them back. There's a wild notion that students will receive remediation the following year as the new teacher identifies academic weaknesses. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.

Rather than having students identified along with a plan and a timeline to address their deficiencies, students are passed on to the next grade and often distinguish themselves by either continuing to do poorly academically or by causing disciplinary problems. If a plan and a timeline for addressing students' deficiencies was established, then promoting kids to the next grade might be more acceptable.

Kids fall behind for all kinds of reasons. They get sick and miss school, they become distracted when parents are in the process of divorce, a death in the family, family members having drug problems, a move to a different school without friends and an entirely different philosophy than the school they just left. Homeless students have to worry about where they are sleeping. And there are kids who don't have responsible parents who care enough to ensure their kids either go to school every day or don't spend time with their own kids.

Teachers complain about overcrowded classrooms, how they often don't have enough supplies, about disinterested students and a lack of parental involvement. All of those are just excuses.

Public schools cannot solve the social ills of the nation. But they can help kids learn. Kids coming from homes where parents don't value an education will always have a tougher row to hoe. However, rather than talking or complaining about the problems, what needs to be done is answer the question that parents should be asking teachers and that is: What are you doing to help my child learn?

When teachers or administrators talk about "those" kids rather than "my" or "our" kids, then you know they don't have ownership in what is happening in their school or classroom. That's a disconnect that does not serve our students well. It means I am not responsible for student learning.

Public schools need an accountability plan that best serves the needs of all of our students. Poverty continues to be the single best predictor of student failure. If people in public education are serious about increasing student achievement for all students, then it's long past time to assign our best teacher and administrators to schools in high poverty areas so we don't create a greater need for remediation. We can no longer permit students with the greatest needs to be served by our least experience teachers with little or no resources. Assignment of personnel must be reevaluated.

And for students who do need additional assistance, public schools can no longer just pass kids along hoping they will catch up. Students falling behind must be identified, a plan must be devised that will enable kids to work at grade level, and there must be a timeline to accomplish that. It cannot be left to chance as it is today.

The testing craze has resulted into a new way of remediating students. It appears that remediation plans are merely turning into teaching to a particular test. When knowledge, understanding, application and transference are sacrificed, so is a student's education. That kind of remediation plan deserves an F-.

(Bill Hanlon, a Las Vegas educator, is a former member of the Nevada Board of Education. His e-mail address is


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