Where Is Differentiation? Schools Are Still Forcing Square Pegs Into Round Holes

When I was still Director of Cherry Preschool, a parent whose child was a total delight in preschool shared a very sad story with me. When her child started kindergarten in public school, he was tested and found to be lacking the skills that would make him a reader by the end of kindergarten, a goal for all children in the academic and testing frenzy that had gripped our educational system since the “no child left behind” craze started under President Bush. Thus, he was placed in a special reading program at age five.

This program failed to teach him to read, and after six months of it, he received help from the school’s reading specialist under a different instructional model. His mother felt the individual attention from the reading teacher was helping when she received the following form letter (not even personally addressed to her) from the Assistant Superintendent of School Operations:

“Your child received a report card that indicates he/she does not meet standards (grade of F) in reading, math and/or language arts or is not meeting standards (grade of F) in five out of eight courses including reading, language arts and math. According to the retention and promotion policy, if a student does not meet standards by trimester three, retention will take place and the student is required to attend tuition-free summer school.”

Needless to say, the parent was heartsick but also justifiably angry. She felt kindergarten failed her child and not the other way around. She questioned the value of repeating the same experience that had already failed to teach her child and wondered if her child was being punished for not being developmentally ready to learn to read by age six, which is still within normal expectations.

That was ten years ago, and sadly little has changed. In fact, in some ways, the trend toward standardization, high stakes testing, and developmentally inappropriate education for our youngest learners has been accelerated by Race to the Top and the Common Core curriculum under President Obama. Our schools have set standards and expectations for kindergarten that were more appropriate for first (and sometimes second) grade. Sadly, I have heard stories like this one many more times.

Some five year olds don’t “test well” at the start of kindergarten simply because they are too shy or nervous to give the correct/expected answers or because they had a cold that day. How sad to be labeled a potential “reading failure” before even starting one’s formal education. How tragic to be introduced to the joys of reading and literature under pressure to meet standards.

“Differentiation” is the buzzword as the way to address the wide array of abilities and learning styles in a classroom. The teacher is theoretically supposed to create individualized learning experiences for 25 children, all of whom are expected to end up “meeting standards” (learning the same amount of measurable information) by the end of the year. Anyone who thinks even the most dedicated and gifted teacher can achieve this has never set foot in a classroom. Unfortunately, many children have teachers who are unable to do more than follow the same curriculum lock step for every child. And sadly, many of our precious “square pegs” are definitely left behind.

I wish every parent whose child is being failed by our schools would remember one of my favorite quotations by Pablo Casals:

“Every second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and never will be again – and what do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two is four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them:

Do you know what you are? You are a marvel! You are unique. In all the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed there has never been another child like you. Look at your body. What a wonder it is. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything.Yes, you are a marvel!”

Because I believe every child is “a marvel,” it breaks my heart to think of all that lost potential. There must be a way to value and honor what is special and precious in every child. What if we learned to value our square pegs for their unique personalities and learning styles rather than pounding them into round holes with the hammer of a standardized, one-size-fits-all education?

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