No child abuse is more insidious, pernicious, and pervasive than the pain and humiliation of school failure inflicted daily on the lives of unfortunate, at-risk students. Failure constitutes child abuse as debilitating and inexcusable as the well publicized abuses because failure is also the result of deliberately imposed suffering and shame. The abusive failure is exacted by educators and school policy makers--the very people who should care most about preventing abuse and salvaging their wounded lives.
Failing students live in dread and fear--fear of continuing failure, fear of judgment, marginalization, ridicule, and rejection. Besides the expected punishment, they dread the daily torment and their parents’ disapprobation and disillusionment. Failing students fear being labeled dumb. And, worst of all, fear that they may actually be dumb.
Fifteen Million Kids Are Flunked Every Year
Most frequently, school failure of at-risk children is the result of a mismatch between their lack of previous knowledge, experiences, and preparedness in relation to a school’s predetermined curriculum and instructional level mandated according to grade level. To teachers, who have been successful in school, chronic failure is a tragedy taken for granted; its causes misunderstood. Fifteen million “at-risk” students are flunked and then blamed for their failure. Bearing labels of “deprived,” ”impoverished,” “troublemakers,” and “disadvantaged,” they are subjected to an assault on their psychic and emotional well being.
Professor Martin Haberman, Wisconsin University, acknowledged authority, and namesake of the Haberman Foundation in Houston states:
“Miseducation is, in effect, a sentence of death carried out daily over a lifetime.
It is the most powerful example I know of cruel and unusual punishment and it is exacted on children innocent of any crime.”
Being Bad Is Better Than Being Dumb
Persistent failure becomes accepted and expected, requiring a rigorous defense of students’ dignity and worth. At-risk students, compelled to attend specified age-grouped, grade-level classes that they cannot comprehend rely on swagger and defensive ploys to cover their pain, embarrassment, inability to learn the predetermined tasks, and exposure of their lack of readiness. They have learned that being bad is better than being dumb, that defiance wins peer approval, and that apathy or hostility precludes having to display their inadequacies. In my own schooling, I remember the class clowns, troublemakers, and defiant kids. I now know they were hiding their shame and failure with bravado and struggling for emotional and psychological survival.
As the failure stigma persists, it becomes internalized. After years of unrelenting failure, labeling, reinforcement, and their own inferential conviction, failing students actually believe the cruel message—they are dumb. And for the many whose failure results in retention, there is no longer any hope—they are over-aged, over-sized, and over-exposed. Retention is the ultimate school rejection because failure is undeniable. Failure becomes official. Everyone in the extended family and friends know s/he flunked. Last year’s classmates and this year’s classes are reminders of the failure. And, his/her being a year behind will continue throughout schooling.
Being “Dumb” Leads Two Directions
This definitive diagnosis of “dumb” generally takes two directions. First, it can be accepted as truth and become a self-fulfilling reality, manifesting itself in a failure identity, defeatist behavior, demoralization, futility, apathy, or withdrawal. S/he is now “officially” dumb. Second, the disgraced victim can lash out at the obvious sources of his/her discomfiture and denigration. Resorting to retaliation or revenge ranging from passive aggression and vandalism, to hostility, defiance, bullying, anti-social behavior, they seek refuge within their own subculture at school. The leap to gang activity, alcohol, drug involvement, illicit behavior, and progressive levels of crime and violence, is as easy as “hanging out” and as predictable as statistical expectation.
School subcultures range from isolated “loners” or “fringers” to “failure identities,” and the “misery loves company” circle of “losers,” truants, pre-gang, and gang members. Failure cultures are so universal and well-known that when a failing student transfers to a different school, s/he will, within minutes, be expected to befriend the failing students in the new school. They are likely to bond immediately and form permanent pacts and friendships.
Kids At-Risk Are Victims
Most failing students are guilty only of being born to parents too impoverished to nurture, too lacking in life skills to teach, too filled with futility to offer hope, and too preoccupied with daily survival themselves, to be resourceful to their children. These children are living the only life they know, and behave according to their lived experiences and accumulated knowledge and life skills. Whatever happened since birth is not the children’s fault. They have lived in a dependent, adult managed world. If kids cannot adapt to the schools’ predetermined curriculum based on age and grade level, it should be the schools’ responsibility to adapt the curriculum to the kids. Schools adamantly refuse to accept or acknowledge that responsibility. At-risk students are victims of circumstances. They can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps –they have no boots.
Bill Page, a farm boy, graduated from a one-room school. He forged a career in the classroom teaching middle school “troublemakers.” For the past 26 years, in addition to his classroom duties, he has taught teachers across the nation to teach the lowest achieving students successfully with his proven premise, “Failure is the choice and fault of schools, not the students.”
Bill Page is a classroom teacher. For 46 years, he has patrolled the halls, responded to the bells, and struggled with innovations. He has had his share of lunchroom duty, bus duty, and playground duty. For the past four years, Bill, who is now in his 50th year as a teacher, is also a full time writer. His book, At-Risk Students is available on Abebooks, Amazon, R.D. Dunn Publishing, and on Bill’s web site: http://www.teacherteacher.com/
In At-Risk Students, Page discusses problems facing failing students, “who can’t, don’t and won’t learn or cooperate.” “The solution,” he states, “is for teachers to recognize and accept student misbehavior as defense mechanisms used to hide embarrassment and incompetence, and to deal with causes rather than symptoms. By entering into a democratic, participatory relationship, where students assume responsibility for their own learning.” Through 30 vignettes, the book helps teachers see failing students through his eyes as a fellow teacher, whose classroom success with at-risk students made him a premier teacher-speaker in school districts across America.