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What does it mean that most of our children are CHRONICALLY IMPROFICIENT in the skills most critically important for success in school?

According to the latest NAEP scores:

66% of our 4th graders and 66% of our 8th graders are below proficiency in Reading.
60% of our 4th graders and 65% of our 8th graders are below proficiency in Math.
73% of our 8th graders and 73% of our 12th graders are below proficiency in Writing.

Whether through NAEP, state, or local assessments, when we look at the data we have about how our children are doing in our schools, we have to ask:

What does it mean that most of our children are chronically improficient* in the skills most critically important for success in school? 

In future posts, I plan to explore what this says about our schools, assessment systems, and leadership priorities (with the realization that most of our children are improficient in the areas we think most important to their success). But for this post, I want to focus on the children: What does it say about our children’s experience of being in school?

What does it feel like – how does it feel, to be chronically, day after day, week after week, month after month, and for a great many children, year after year – not good enough?  Not good enough at something that they know is important, that they know is causing them to fall behind, that they can’t seem to get good enough at achieving, and that they can’t hide because their family, friends, and peers know about it too? What is the effect of chronically feeling ‘not good enough’ about your learning?

There can be a great many reasons why a child is below proficiency in a critical competency area: innate brain issues, impoverished family learning environments (poor developmental learning trajectories), low self-esteem, incompetent preschools, undifferentiated grade school instruction, and many others (including, in some cases, ‘effort’). None of the most common factors, are the child’s fault. Yet, we all conspire, unintentionally yet pervasively, to contribute to causing children to experience their improficiencies as if they are their fault as if they are struggling because they are not good enough, not trying hard enough, not smart enough, not good enough learners.

What do you feel when you blame yourself for not being good enough at something that is important to you and that you do in public? You feel shame. So what NAEP (and our other educational data aggregations) tell us is that a vast number of our children are experiencing chronic self-blame/shame about not being good enough at learning. Put another way, education is creating the conditions in which a vast number of our children feel chronically ashamed of their minds.

How well do you do at things that cause you to feel ashamed of yourself when you do them?  How long can you sustain trying to learn something that frustrates you and causes you to feel stupid? Everyday for a week… for a month… for a year… for years? If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we are pretty good at doing whatever we have to do to avoid the situations that lead to that dreaded feeling of shame. When we feel ashamed of our looks, our bodies, our singing voices, or our dancing moves, we wear more make-up, we avoid wearing certain kinds of clothes, we stay away from Karoke bars and dance floors. But what happens when learning challenges evoke shame? What happens to our learning when we feel ashamed of not learning well enough? Being ashamed of our minds – being ashamed of our ability to learn (“mind-shame”) is learning disabling because we tend to avoid the shame we feel by avoiding the learning challenges that cause us to feel shame.

NAEP (and our other educational data aggregations) are telling us that many, if not most, of our children are growing up (learning up) learning disabled by how they feel about their chronic improficiencies. See also: Unhealthy Learning: Shame

*A child is proficient when the brain-work of using a competency (reading, writing, math) is transparent to the mind-work of learning with the competency at the grade level they are in.

Note: This post was originally published in my blog for the National Association of School Superintendents

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