Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Educating All Children

Consider three very different childhoods:

Patricia Polacco, born in 1944, was an elementary school nonreader, a kid who felt ‘dumb’. She learned to read at about middle school age and later became a well-known children's author and illustrator. Thank you Mr. Falker is based on her real-life journey learning to read. It is one of several books that feature teachers who were instrumental in her school years, teachers who believed she could learn skills she didn’t yet have and who found ways to reach her.

Jeanette C. was born around 1930 in a rural, high poverty area of Kentucky. She had an unknown condition that prevented her from walking independently; that disability in turn kept her from making the trip to the one-room schoolhouse, or attending any school. Several of her siblings eventually moved up the ranks in terms of socio-economic status. Her younger sister very nearly had a master's degree when she got married. Jeanette lived at her home her entire life. She died in her 40s after she fell into a tub of scalding water.

Sheila, described by Torey Hayden in One Child, began school in the 1970s. A six-year-old from unspeakable circumstances, she was gifted intellectually but scarred emotionally and had displayed a capability for violence that made it difficult to find a placement. It was the high school bus, not the elementary one, that she relied on to get from her migrant camp to the selected special needs class. She arrived at school much earlier than the other children, and it fell to her teacher to watch her -- and to bathe her and launder clothes that had been wet. Her teacher took on a large battle that year: keeping her out of the state institution.

These three individuals had very different school experiences, but they had something in common. They were at the mercy of their geography and at the mercy of events. They lived in a time when it wasn't yet expected that all children would go to school or all children would learn. Even a relatively minor physical disability could mean no school. There was no special ed bus with wheel chair lifts and trained drivers. A child with a cognitive disability who didn't learn to read from whatever reader was adopted or whatever methods were standardly employed could be placed in the ‘low group’ but receive little support, following further behind each year, eventually dropping out. The U.S. Department of Education, in a publication celebrating 35 years of IDEA, stated that in 1970, only one in five students with disabilities was educated (

One thing that has gotten better about education: Today's schools educate all children. Modern schools educate children with wheelchairs and medical equipment, children who need an aide to feed them, children who appear at a glance to be “typically developing” but have unusual patterns of cognitive strengths and weaknesses. There’s still a place for teachers to have eureka moments, but school systems are not as reliant on them as they were in Patricia Polacco’s school days. It’s a world of widespread kindergarten screenings, of diagnostic tests that determine patterns of strength.

Educating all children isn’t just about educating students with disabilities. It’s about educating children who have experienced adverse life experiences – experiences that aren’t new but are getting new attention and more resources. Today school social workers and school counselors help teachers help their students access community resources. Teachers no longer have personal responsibility for meeting students’ basic hygiene needs or providing one-on-one after hours tutoring or enrichment to help them discover their potential. Indeed these days being alone in a classroom with an individual child is frowned upon. And that points to another difference between today’s educational system and that of earlier eras: The modern education system doesn't just educate all children. It attempts to shield children from all reasonably foreseeable circumstances. It wasn’t many decades ago that sexual abuse could take place on the other side of a door. Even in the post-2000 era, there were cases where a respected educator molested or otherwise engaged in sexual misconduct, ostentatious signs of grooming missed by colleagues. Today's teachers have trainings on academics and also on bullying, suicide prevention, and recognizing abuse and neglect. They have trainings on acting as professionals in the classroom and as advocates in the larger community.

Teachers sometimes find themselves listening to critics talk about how much better school was in an earlier era, or how much less it could cost to educate children. Many people don't recognize the extent of public school responsibility. They may not realize that the public school system also pays to educate children with disabilities who attend private school or that they extend ‘child find’ activities to very young children in the community. They may not realize how many fundamental needs went unmet in earlier eras, how many children simply weren’t there -- or how many of those who weren’t there went on to institutions.

Critics of public education -- and of teachers – sometimes speak of earlier eras as a golden era. The myth has been around a long time. The era never existed. Modern education is not one bureaucracy but many, and there aren’t many educators who like all the cogs of all the machines they are a part of. Still it can feel better to be a part of that world than an earlier one where education seemed too much like throwing things against a wall to see what stuck. Some stuck very well, and some who stuck well remember it all very fondly. But public education marches on, with the goal of not only making education more universal but of giving students a more universal experience of ‘sticking’.