While teaching middle school, I saw many students who were far behind where they should have been before they even entered my class. It’s sometimes easy to see what makes teenagers fall behind. I came up with all sorts of reasons, some of them true and some of them excuses to make me feel better about such difficult work: They fell behind their classmates and just never caught up. They stopped trying. They were too concerned with being cool. They lived in deep poverty.
I realize now that to cope with how hard teaching was, I tried coming up with explanations for why my older students were falling behind—some of which I still worry about, some of which I’m ashamed to admit I ever thought. I’m ashamed, in particular, that I blamed my students, especially if their academic struggles led to behavior issues.
There’s so much more at play, but having experienced the challenges of teaching, I understand why people sometimes fall into this trap and blame older students for their struggles. The achievement gap is unfathomably hard to overcome, and the pressure educators feel can lead to blame. This can cloud our judgment of what we really need to do to support students.
I’ve since moved to working in an elementary school, which I never thought I would do when I first started teaching. There were some initial shocks, like tiny, smiling faces enthusiastically waving at me in the hallway, students helping another student who had tripped and fallen and walking into school holding hands, and teachers calling everyone “friends” and just accepting that as normal. These were all positive surprises.
But the biggest surprise is that I see the same gap I saw with my older students in kids just beginning school. How is it possible for a kindergartner to come into school already behind? How is it possible for a first-grader to enter a new school years behind?
Looking back at all of the excuses people try to rationalize with older students, they simply don’t fit in an elementary context. They can’t have fallen behind their classmates if they’ve never had classmates before. They aren’t concerned with popularity as kindergartners.
With standards becoming more rigorous to ensure all students are college-ready, early childhood education is changing. What I hear from teachers is that students coming into kindergarten not knowing the letters, sounds and concepts of the alphabet are already behind academically. Not only that, but students without quality pre-K come into kindergarten not prepared socially or emotionally for school, which then makes it even harder for them to catch up academically.
These students start their education at a different point from their peers, already behind what is considered grade-level, and we somehow expect them—and their teachers—to close that gap. Years later, that student comes to my seventh-grade classroom well-below grade-level and people start blaming him/her, his/her family, his/her culture, his/her teachers, etc.
If we want all children to start on an equal playing field, quality pre-K needs to be part of the equation. Thankfully, our Legislature is discussing this issue in 2015, with state leaders considering various proposals on early learning. As they move through the last month of session, I hope they’ll keep in mind the factors that already contribute to the achievement gap in low-income communities, where parents are often stuck with no options on where to send their child for school.
I believe expanding and fully funding early learning scholarships—which ensure that low-income parents have a choice of which quality pre-K program they want their child to attend—is the best option for Minnesota, and would help our youngest learners, like those at my school, take their first steps into academic success.
Expanding access to high-quality early learning programs—starting with historically underserved three- and four-year-olds first—won’t solve all of our problems, but it’s a first step. And first steps are really important.
Ben Bauer is currently the director of operations at Hiawatha Leadership Academy-Morris Park and a part-time law school student at William Mitchell. He studied education at St. John's University and spent two summers teaching St. Paul Public Schools middle school students with Breakthrough before joining Teach For America, through which he taught seventh-grade English at a KIPP school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After leaving the classroom, Ben served as a site director for Breakthrough Twin Cities. Having gone through both traditional and alternative licensure programs, Ben is particularly interested in how we attract, train and retain teachers.
The MinnCAN blogging fellowship allows Minnesota teachers, administrators and parents to share their thoughts on key education issues. MinnCAN supports fellows seeking to advance the conversation around public education, though fellows' views and opinions are solely their own.