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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2013/07/guest-commentary-america-is-doing-great-job-in-creating-low-skill-workers/

Guest commentary

America is doing great job in creating low-skill workers

(Bridge archive photo/Sam Zomer)

(Bridge archive photo/Sam Zomer)

If you wanted to create a system that limits educational options and consigns the vast majority of poor American children to continue to live in poverty, just look around you. Whether you live in urban or rural America, the results of an educational design which cripples young learners who are not among those most fortunate and nurtured are in evidence.

It is not just corrupt inner-city schools which are part of this educational design; it is the school in your community.

Consider the recipe.

Bob Sornson was a classroom teacher and school administrator for more than 30 years and is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation.

Bob Sornson was a classroom teacher and school administrator for more than 30 years and is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation.

Begin with young children coming to school with incredible differences in nurturing, exposure, nutrition, oral language skills, motor skills, and home routines which support academic and social readiness.  Poor children are more likely to attend preschools or child care of lesser quality. Poor children are more likely to end up on the short end of experiences which support school readiness.

Even in the early grades most of our American schools have been coerced into using curriculum-driven instructional systems in which teachers are expected to “cover” long lists of content expectations. American elementary schools attempt to “cover” far more content in a year than any of the high performing school systems around the world.

A group of children with different ages, genders, experiences, and developmental readiness are now placed in a classroom with 25 to 35 other children. This is much larger than class-size research would support (17 to 22 is recommended for K-2).  With one teacher, the classroom is organized using an old industrial model, in which this wildly diverse group of children will receive similar instruction within the allotted time.

This old model was well designed for efficient delivery of instruction in a world in which most students were not expected to finish high school, become great readers or mathematicians, or consider higher education. But today this model is failing our children at greater rates than most adults can imagine.

Children learn best when given instruction that includes a little bit of challenge along with a high degree of success.  Early readers should practice reading books in which they already know about 95 percent of the sight words. Higher degrees of frustration cause the young learner to demotivate, give less time and effort to learning tasks, learn less, and misbehave more.  Children with less developed skills can quickly disengage from learning even though they have incredible potential to succeed.

The more school-ready students earn positive attention from teachers and parents. Less school-ready students will likely get less positive attention for their efforts to learn, and may discover how to get attention from negative behaviors.

While teachers complain about the pressure to “cover” content, and know which students are struggling and disengaged from important learning, they succumb to the system expectations.  Many teachers become expert at delivering lessons, following the script, and covering content.  But they lose or fail to develop formative assessment skills which might allow them to carefully observe their students and adjust instruction to meet their individual needs.

Highly anxious to cover all their content expectations, teachers spend less time on building relationships, practicing school behaviors, practicing classroom routines, teaching social skills, or developing classroom culture.  Highly anxious teachers help create highly anxious students who do not feel safe or connected to their teachers.

Art, music, time with nature, exercise, play, awareness of beauty, and the development of personal character are considered less important than preparation for state achievement tests.  They are not a priority and are seldom discussed within the education community.

By the beginning of fourth grade, the point at which we can accurately predict long-term learning outcomes, only 33 percent of American children are at proficient reading levels (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2010). Only 17 percent of children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are at proficient reading levels.  The vast majority of these children are unlikely to become good readers, love to learn, go on to advanced education, or become learners for life.  We have institutionalized a pattern of failure which will keep poor children unsuccessful in the information age.

CLICK TO ENLARGE (Chart by Bob Sornson)

CLICK TO ENLARGE (Chart by Bob Sornson)

Political and education leaders are outraged as the United States slips to successively lower levels in international comparisons. They call for more standardized testing and harsher evaluation of teachers.

Attempts to improve graduation rates by intervening with ninth-grade students are consistently unsuccessful. Attempts to improve learning outcomes by retaining below-grade-level third-graders are consistently unsuccessful. Students without the experience of early learning success are far more likely to engage in risky behaviors, substance abuse, drop out of school, and find trouble with the law.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff report that 75 percent of high school seniors are not eligible to serve in the military because of poor academic skills, poor physical fitness, or a criminal record.  Nationally, only 25 percent of the high school graduates taking the ACT exam met or surpassed the college readiness benchmarks in English, math, reading and science.  In Michigan only 18.1 percent met the benchmarks, and among economically disadvantaged Michigan students only 6.6 percent met the benchmarks.

Our recipe has a predictable result. The majority of American children do not become proficient learners in the early grades.  The majority of our children do not fall in love with learning.  For poor children the rates of learning success are abysmally low. Unsuccessful early learners are consigned to live without the skills that open the doors to opportunity and success.  They are systematically prepared to be disengaged learners and low-wage earners.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

19 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Leon L. Hulett

    Dear Mr. Sornson,

    As you seem to be have acquainted yourself well with how students are doing at the K-12 level. I have a very special question for you.

    I confess, I did ask this question of our local school board about 15 years ago. And as you may imagine they would not answer this question. Earlier they had presented six reasons why they needed a new school and I showed that each of their six reasons was false. Those reasons did not include the vital information of why they actually wanted the new 8 million dollar High School. (I actually did this in court one time as well. My brother had been convicted on 15 counts relating to Environmental things with the DNR. He had been fined and thrown in jail, denied his medications, and summoned to court to say why he should not be held ‘In Contempt of Court.’ I showed the court each of 15 charges were false, and the court threw it all out.)

    So I thought to myself, what question would cut through all the false information being presented and show the actual vital information, one, a citizen that is, might like to know to truly solve the problem. My question requests actual information that is available to each teacher, each grade level, in each school. What solution I would present knowing the answer to this question from them, and now you, is probably quite another story.

    I made up a graph on a sheet of xerox paper for them showing Grades 1 through 12. I told them I wanted them to tell me, ‘What grade level our students have actually achieved.’ I drew a line for my rough estimate of what the National Average might be and what their answer most likely would be: I said lets say 100% of our students are at grade level when they complete Grade 1, with a straight line down to the right to 5% for Grade 12 at graduation. When they finally understood it, they said, ‘This is all you want?’ Each teacher could answer this question. The Principal for each Grade Level could answer this question. The School Board for our local school could answer this question.

    Of course, they would not answer my question. Because it shows a trend for American Education. This is not a trend that stops at graduation. The trend does not stop at K-16. The trend applies to all that American Education touches.

    Even if you will not answer my question for me here, please answer it for yourself. Alright?

    1. Bob Sornson

      Mr. Weiss: this article is intended to give readers a deeper understanding of the problem. I will try to provide concrete suggestion for sensible reform in an upcoming guest column.
      Ms. Fournier: thank you, more to come.
      Mr. Hulett: unfortunately even in Kindergarten not all students are school ready or at grade level. But in the early years there is much that can be done to change these outcomes. Read Fanatically Formative: Successful Learning during the Crucial K-3 Years for much more detail.

      1. Leon L. Hulett, PE

        My point is more basic than lack of ‘readiness'; at the Kindergarten level, or the K-3 level.

        I read a quote, a very general quote from the NEAP in the 1990’s. It said, ‘Half of the students in America drop out of Math each year. By the time students graduate only 5% are at grade level.’ The context said this applied on through their life. This quote inspired my question to my local school board, and to you. When I looked at Reading and other subjects the same ‘50% per year’ idea seems to apply. When I went to Michigan State way back when, I was anguished to see this reality unfold for four years there right before my eyes. I took 7 different courses there where department policy seemed to demand that 50% of the students taking that one special course drop out of their curriculum. Except I, as a Mechanical Engineering Major, took Math classes with Math Majors and 50% of the 70 or so students scored low enough in a mandatory class to force them to drop out of that curriculum. I took classes with the Physics and Chemistry Majors. Same thing! What was most agonizing to me back then, during the Viet Nam War, was that the names of each dropout went to their local Selective Service Board and another Draftee was sent off to Viet Nam. This was quite crushing to me to realize this applies all the way through American Education, K-20 and throughout life; ‘Life Long Learning’

        These realities informed my question to you. First getting teachers, Principals, or schools or you to release this information to the public so they can express their opinion on the reality of what such a Graph says, based on their own children and their local conditions…ready or not.

        My conclusion from such a graph is that students are not prepared well enough to even succeed at the next grade level. The same cruel trend applies to everything they study in life. They do not know how to study well enough at the K level to succeed at First Grade…50% drop out (academically – physically or legally). If each student could read at First Grade Level and knew how to use a Dictionary to define all the First Grade words and symbols, my guess is they would have little trouble with Second Grade Reading, etc. I said in my question to take First Grade at 100% only to make my question easier to state. I do not expect the answer from any teacher or Grade Level or School to be 100% at First Grade, or any Grade. That is would you meant, right?

        Now I don’t think you have answered my question, but I will read your book and please accept my apology if you actually have answered it.

        The Solution envisioned by my special question is this, ‘How do we prepare a child study-wise at one grade level well enough to succeed 100% or better at the next grade level?

        Taking this Solution a step further I formulated from my Industry experience with standards, 10 Basic Standards that require each student to learn certain exact skills, certain study skills. I wrote 10 little courses that a tutor could use with a student so they could learn each of the 10 Standards. If I did my job well and each tutor did their job well, we should have a student that can succeed at their next level in school or in life, or let’s say from the viewpoint of the student…the next thing they wish to succeed at in life. I tested this with my first student after they completed the first course for the First Standard.

        I hope you, and your readers, will take the opportunity to make such a graph and simply look at it. What does it mean for America? Do you come the same conclusions I did? Let me know.

      2. Leon L. Hulett, PE

        OK, now I have a copy of your book ‘Fanatically Formative’ in front of me.

        My kneejerk reaction is that you might be heading up this ‘Formative’ movement. I sat with an Educator on the way back from Denver a few months ago and as the conversation progressed, I told him that I felt like I was ‘talking with the Enemy.’ He was the Professor that taught Principals and Superintendents from around the state when they come in for refresher courses. Let me see what you have to say in this book, as well as whether you answered my question or not here.

        1. Leon L. Hulett, PE

          OK, your book is 193 pages and did not answer my question. It looks to me ‘you can not see the forest for the trees’, or said another way, you are looking at so many seemingly important ideas here and you do not speak about the most important things, as I will explain.

          It is a good discussion of the problems certified teachers face in K-3 education according to your own and ‘the very best educational research.’ It does lead into the products your consultancy group sells.

          Did it ever occur to you to talk to someone in business or industry or government or the military or the community, that employs everyone of these students at some point in their lives?

          Well, here is some feedback from someone in industry. I think you have missed the whole point of education in your 193 pages. What do industry, business, the community et al, employ teachers to accomplish? What is your product supposed to be, as far as they are concerned?

          Have you asked, ‘What is the Basic Purpose of Education?’ Your book does not seem to indicate that you know. In one of the earliest books I know on education, ‘National Education in the United States’ by Pierre Du Pont, written in April 1800, he does say. He says it is ‘to work’, to teach kids the ethic of work, to teach kids how to work and to be effective while working.

          Your book describes a first-grade class of 23 where 8 seem to have not successfully completed Kindergarten. The teacher struggles with this. But then you go on to say the second and third grade teachers also have these same struggles. Then you elaborate that if certain essentials are not learned by third-grade this predicts failure. But you do not demonstrate that your system handles this failure. You do a good job of describing how resolved your first grade teacher is and how hard she works. But you fail, she fails to align all her work with the basic purpose of Education. She is striving to overcome the obstacles kids bring to school and the state imposes on her, teachers that is. You show that she and other teachers flagrantly and I might say with great nobility disobey the state law to hopefully work out something better. You fail to mention they seem to consult no one in industry or the community as to what might be expected and needed. I have had dozens of young new-hire Engineers sit down in front of me on their first day of work. This is the question they always ask, with enthusiasm; ‘I am your new Engineer.’ ‘What do you want me to do?’ Inevitably, they and their teachers and their professors in college and university have never ever asked me or someone in industry, ‘What do you WANT them to do?’ This is the situation when they sit down in front of me.

          So I will reverse the question now to you, ‘What do you expect them to be able to do that will allow them to contribute and be competitive in the international markets we live in, in American Industry?’ You act just like it is not your responsibility to know this. You ignore that each student has invested 13 or 17 or 20 years in this and no one has informed them ‘What they are supposed to do?’ They don’t even know to ask themselves, before that moment. There is one vital thing they do know though at that moment, and that is ‘They have been trained to know all about it.’ So they have nothing at all to learn from me, American Industry, that is. So where does that leave your students, now new-hires each having this frame of mind they can not learn anything from their employers? I suppose this is learned ‘by example’ from their teachers.

          So let me close with a new question for you, since you seem unable to comprehend, let alone understand, the importance of my first question above.

          You may recognize it as a restatement of the first question you ask in your First Chapter, Study Questions:

          ‘Why are we seeing more people with learning failure coming to Industry?’ If you were to ask this of anyone in industry, or anyone that employs people, I think you would get a very simple emphatic answer.

  2. Mar Sclawy

    And yet the Michigan legislature refuses to vote for CORE curriculum. Perhaps the members are some of those underperforming Michigan public school grads.

  3. ron Lemke

    So much of our conversation seems to center on education. That is a key point,but ours is a societal issue. We keep saying each child is an individual yet we want them at approx. the same time to take the same classes in order to graduate. The State at least initially wanted all to take 4 years of math, two years foreign language, chemistry or physics, on line classes, etc. etc. Get real help save more of our CTE classes, if it isn’t too late already. Spend money early before it is too late.

    1. Karen

      I have worked with Dr. Sornson several years now in his K-3 Early Learning Success Institute. I just wish my school have meet him many years earlier. Our district is being proactive using essential skills approach by Dr. Sornson. We are using ongoing formative assessments to match and instructional match for our students and our scores have improved. We tracked our first group using ELSI and checked their scores on the MCT2 and were extremely pleased with our improvement. We have moved from 50% proficient and advanced up to 90% in math and 85% in reading. Dr. Sornson is a wonderful child advocate and an amazing person to pick his brain for helpful information.

      Have a SUCCESS school year!

      1. Karen

        Sorry for the grammar!

  4. Jason weiss

    What is the point of this article? While it outlines the difficulties facing modern education it is a simple regurgitation of a list of problems. Where are the solutions? Where are the improvements? I grow weary of complaints with little to offer in the way of improvements. I found this mildly informational but of little value. What about sone stats showing the value of year round school, more effective administrative practices, smaller class sizes, pared down curriculums with a focus on depth of knowledge, higher compensation rates for educators to draw in highly effective people?

    1. Bob Sornson

      Mr. Weiss: this article is intended to give readers a deeper understanding of the problem. I will try to provide concrete suggestion for sensible reform in an upcoming guest column.

  5. Gina Fournier

    Forgive the pedantic ‘tude, but well done. Former teacher here, too, community college English. We are also preparing a nation of graduates who do not read but nevertheless graduate. Now, how to get your message across to a public that doesn’t read? How to encourage adults and taxpayers to consider the issue of ed reform for long enough to realize the implications of your argument: structure much change in order to change philosophy and actions. Self pacing can’t work in a system with so much waste at the top. Parents see mascots before the big picture. Superintendents do not want to lose their jobs. So, what next?

    1. Bob Sornson

      Ms. Fournier: thank you, more to come.

  6. r. Karl Burnett

    The “old-model” worked rather well,… making certain that students who didn’t follow instruction (me) to the letter were used as an example to reinforce “good behavior” in 1st grade, and “control” over students for the instructor. I was made to be discouraged for the rest of the time spent in schools. That part of the model hasn’t changed!
    When only 30% of students (initially) were expected to be candidates for college, and ultimately 15% actually would, the rest were simply prepared for “industrial purgatory”.
    Now, in an attempt to make a union-free America, the jobs have been sent outside the country, and “The Model” can be recognized for what it has always been. Private and charter schools are doing the same thing.
    I earned the credentials I enjoy today through life learning, and extra opportunities on my own. Yes, it’s time to wake up, and start doing some “New-Model” things. Stop playing around rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!

  7. Duane

    Are these problems new or are the historic?

    “Begin with young children coming to school with incredible differences in nurturing, exposure, nutrition, oral language skills, motor skills, and home routines which support academic and social readiness. ” Was this true when schools and the education system was more successful? (Were schools evr more successful?)

    It will be interesting if Mr. Sornson’s future commentaries ever include a description of what he found after investigating who and why kids that did achieve ‘success’ did it. It seems Mr. Sorson like so many others are preoccupied with why things don’t work rather then interested in identifying successes and explain why they do work. It serves commentors well to find failures and pronounce ‘thei’r solutions. That is the difference with the private sector, they look for success and try to emulate it while the public sector is focused on failure and how they are the ones to solve it.

    I wonder when any of the Bridge commentators will consider that the key player in education is the student and start asking them why they do or don’t want to learn, why they do or don;t study, why they do or don;t pay attention in class. But that would suggest that kids are important to the systems’ success rather then just a metric to justify more spending.

  8. Chuck Fellows

    The article provides symptoms. What we need is a diagnosis, a clear definition of the root causes that are causing the symptoms to present.

    Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have provided excellent analysis (they capture the essence of many thought leaders in education and organizational development from Pestalozzi to Pinker and Deming to Drucker). Of course this material is pretty dense and time and care must be taken as it is digested by the reader. Ken Robinson in his http://www.ted.com presentations provides a great overview with wit and clarity. Some real succinct clues are contained in Taylor Mali’s brief poem, “What Teachers Make” which is also on http://www.ted.com.

    The Common Core and Smarter Balance Assessment movement is a good beginning to address some of the fundamental issues with a focus on learning, understanding and transfer instead of “education” made up of discrete pieces of knowledge. Unfortunately those vested in what is, the current “system” of education made up of rigid institutions and traditional behaviors will do what they have done with all other change efforts – absorb it and morph it into exactly what we have today – The 1892 Committee of Ten prescription further enhanced by Horace Mann’s distant interpretation of Prussian military discipline, Binet’s belief that intelligence can be assigned a numerical value and the determination of policy makers to assign an “objective” measure of efficiency to the process of learning as cheaply as possible.

    What is effective is ignored. Follow the leadership wisdom that says the people who do the actual work (teachers and students) must be listened to and supported in that work by those who would direct their efforts. That’s what the currently successful (based on long term outcomes) systems of education do. Pasi Salhberg’s book “Finnish Lessons” explains how this is done in their culture.

  9. Bradlee J. Stroia Ph.D

    I am again inspired after reading the article by Dr. Sornson. I have recently had a similar educational experience. By trade, I run a research group in a fortune 500 corporation. Over the years, I was consistently seeing the engineering capability of new hires decrease, and wondering what the root cause was. After reading about Geof Canada’s experience with the Harlem children’s zone, and reading Paul Tough’s book, I decided to see for myself, what young America’s education was achieving. I enlisted as a tutor, once per week, tutoring math in an inner city elementary school. I was given a group of six students to teach math to. Quickly, I learned what level of math learning/knowledge they were at. They struggled with addition with numbers greater than hundreds. They struggled with subtraction in a similar fashion. They did not know their math facts (up to 12×12). They did not know long division. After the first lesson, I reported this to the teacher, and the response was: “Yea, they don’t know their math facts.” I took a different tact the following week. And the following week. I spent the time teaching them “how to learn” I asked questions like: “why are you here in school” “do you like school” “what do you like” I gradually got them to a place where they could really, really give me an answer. I got answers like: “I don’t like school”… expected. “I like it when I can get something” “I like it when I do well on a test” I asked them to envision what it would be like later in life, and working on their “dream” job. I asked them how they were going to get to that place? Most did not exactly know, but they said probably school. I created a simple graphic based on the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. The bottom bricks were Kindergarten, the top tower was the highest education they can get to. I called this new graphic “learn a brick” to illustrate that their education is a cumulative learning process. Bottom level, I wrote 1+1=?, “that’s easy, the answer is 2″ Great, you have learned that brick. Now step on it and see what is next to learn. On the top level I put something like the 1st law of thermodynamics, they were clueless. I asked them if they know 8×5 = ? They did. I showed them on the graphic what level that was. They learned that brick, now step on it, and see what is next to learn. Using this simple graphic, they quickly could see how their education can get them where they want to go, even to the top, if that is where they were headed. I told them that there are three basic rules of learning that they need to know, and keep close. (1) You have to WANT to learn. Teachers don’t teach you what you know, you teach yourself. You have to “open the gate” to be receptive to the learning process. (2) Listen to your teacher. If you don’t get it, ask questions. If you still don’t get it, ask questions. If you still don’t get it ask questions, or ask another teacher for help. Don’t give up. “Can’t” is not allowed… knock out the “T” (3) hard work. If you want to get to where you want to go, you have to learn, flat out, and work hard at it.
    The following week we resumed math tutoring. Back to math facts. Can’t multiply. “that’s ok, our teacher let’s us use our calculators” Really. I brought a gift for you this week. Flash cards. Six grade. Yep. All we did the next 2 weeks were flash card’s. When we got to long division, they flew through the first set of problems.
    To be fair, each week, I let them give me a homework assignment for the following week. They knew I was an engineer. Why is the sky blue? Not allowed, too easy. I told them to really think of hard problems. They did. why does a motor turn? Why is the sun hot? How does a plane stay up in the air.
    Ok. All this, you have probably noticed is nested in creating and maintaining a relationship with the students. Tied directly to their education. And, stimulating them to think and see the VALUE of learning. Most teachers I would imagine can share many experiences such as mine. My kids got it. I had a great time. Can’t wait till next year for the next set of students.

    1. Leon L. Hulett, PE

      Dr. Stroia,

      I enjoyed your information here. I too am an Engineer. I too envisioned a decline in educational level and decided to take it back to the K-12 level. I chose Substitute Teaching and to recommend a set of standards that I conceived on my own. I said to myself, ‘I am a Professional Engineer. How would I solve this problem?’ I decided that a set of improved standards was the way to go for me. I then recommended these to a local School To Work group and local School Boards. A teacher asked, ‘What class-room experience did I have?’ She did not seem to credit that teaching Engineers might be similar enough. So I decided to kind of go under-cover as a Substitute Teacher and see first hand myself what the situation was, and secondarily see how my ideas for standards might work in the classrooms. I felt they worked great. Some students said, they had learned more from me than they had all year with their regular teacher. As you had I used lots of experiences from my Engineering work to spice things up. When training students on my standards, I ask them to solve some pretty complex things. I also teach them basic skills, like what an ‘ability’ is and how one acquires one more or less instantaneously. I have the students demonstrate the concept until they can apply it instantly. I found a set of problems from CalTech in the 50’s called the Strong Problems. These are problems the Freshmen students back then had trouble solving. I worked my first student, a fifth-grader for about an hour on one of these and she then demonstrated the ability to solve similar problems ‘instantly.’ I think the bar could definitely be raised by expecting higher standards. For your example of a student not getting something, in my system I would have them learn the basic concept of it. To get to that point I would first have them look for a word or symbol just earlier in their materials that was not understood. When that is defined then they may be able to learn that idea again. If not one looks for an earlier word right there in their materials or earlier. For a student that has been failing for some time, I usually have to go quite a bit earlier to solve it.

      Anyways, I admire what you are doing with students and wish you the best.

      If you wish we could continue this dialog.

  10. Bull

    Hi Bob,
    We are still waiting for “more to come”? Any idea when that will be?

    From,
    Patiently Waiting

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