Via 2blowhards, I came across an article that argues that today's educators operate under various false assumptions, and that the No Child Left Behind program exacerbates them. I'll leave you to agree or disagree with it, but a particular paragraph struck home with me.
American schools have never been able to teach everyone how to read, write, and do arithmetic. The myth that they could has arisen because schools a hundred years ago did not have to educate the least able. When the twentieth century began, about a quarter of all adults had not reached fifth grade and half had not reached eighth grade. The relationship between school dropout and intellectual ability was not perfect, but it was strong. Today’s elementary and middle schools are dealing with 99 percent of all children in the eligible age groups.
My wife is a special ed tutor, so she deals with the very bottom of that 99 percent. She helps handle several kids, but one young lady in particular is her focus. This girl, a senior, almost never speaks. I don't know what her so-called mental age is, but I'm fairly sure she's never going to be able to live on her own. She's a prime example of a child who probably never would have gone to school 100 years ago, because she can't function in a normal classroom and no special programs existed. My wife's job is to teach her, and the others, as much of what their classmates learn as possible.
I attended a music program put on by that girl and other special ed kids today. The level of handicap varies widely in the group, but all have definite difficulties. They put a lot of work into the program, and they were rightly quite proud of what they accomplished, as were the parents who were there. A good time was had by all. The Superintendent of schools was there as well, and as we left, he said "I'm glad I was able to make it."
Most of these kids face uncertain futures at best. What they're doing now may be a high point in their lives, one that they never would have experienced 100 years ago, or probably 40 years ago for that matter, and one that had they had to be taught to experience. Here one premise of the article comes into the picture: that the education system needs to understand that an individual student only has so much ability, and no magic teaching method is going to increase it. So teach the student to maximize that ability, even (I would say especially) if that maximum isn't going to be very high. It may not help test scores, but it will improve students' lives.