Saturday, August 20, 2005

Which Child Shall We Leave Behind?

The “No Child Left Behind” act has made it clear that a whole lot of reservation schools are not keeping up, according to the criteria of the law and surprising no one. Reservation administrators and teachers try to explain why this is so and to fight off the further stigma of being pointed out and penalized by the act.

We have a California-immigrant lawyer named Brian Kahn who runs an half-hour interview show on Yellowstone Public Radio -- Tuesdays at 6:30 PM and they stream the show over the Net. Kahn’s shtick is positive exploration of what it means to be a citizen and, since he was the head of Nature Conservancy in California for years, puts a definite focus on land use issues. He’s very handsome, married to a fine artist and essayist, and has a lovely voice. Oddly, this does not make me like him better. He’s a romantic -- this DOES make me like him better.

A while ago he interviewed the head of the NEA, a man so profoundly, dismally, and bluntly uneducated and avaricious that I was appalled. So was Kahn. The subject was why a law called “No Child Left Behind” might be not be effective. Kahn considers public education a keystone to citizenship. To say that some people cannot be educated means to him that some people will be barred from citizenship, while -- to his idealistic mind -- every adult member of our society should be an active and informed citizen. Remember that when Brown was the governor of California they called him Governor Moonbeam? Well, Kahn calls his organization “Artemis.” She’s the goddess of the hunt, but also the goddess of the moon.

So to help Kahn cope with his lunar madness, I sent him a paper developed by Robey Clark, who works for NW Educational Labs which has been key in developing strategies and methods for jacking the Browning schools up enough to say they “Leave No Child Behind.” The paper was carefully reasoned, supported by statistics gathered through conscientious research, and I think it will ultimately lead to improvement, though not to the extent that the school administration hopes. (Robey and Mary Margaret Johnson, the Browning superintendent, are both former students of mine. I have the highest regard for them. They were excellent students.) Kahn didn’t like the paper. Didn’t get it.

In the meantime, someone put him on to a man who does brain research with the new tomograpic methods where thinking can actually be observed with a brain scanner -- at least which parts of the brain activate in what order. He said flatly that the part of the brain that processes reading is either missing or not taught to do its job (which must usually happen pretty early in life) in maybe one-fifth of students. (He was far more specific than that, but I wasn’t taking notes. I googled to see if I could recognize the expert’s name and discovered that there is a regular stampede on reading and brain research.) In a world where autism rates are quickly increasing (which means that those future citizens cannot relate normally to other people), maybe it’s not surprising that reading success is becoming more limited, but maybe we ought to remember that Charlie Russell, who was the very opposite of autistic, was both dyslexic and dysgraphic -- not because he was an uneducated cowboy artist (a convenient pose) but because his brain just wouldn’t operate except in pictures and stories -- the classic Indian modes of narration. Many is the nonperforming student I’ve known who could and would draw by the hour with competence and focus.

The bottom line is that there are physical reasons why some kids can’t learn to read but could if they were taught properly in time. The methods for these kids are different than those classically used. The materials needed to teach this way are not available to the extent they ought to be. Indeed, they aren’t fully developed yet. We are leaving children behind because we haven’t really understood how people learn to read.

Very few people don’t learn to speak and understand spoken language. “Wild” children raised by animals (more of them than you might think) or raised by negligent or oppressive adults don’t learn to speak. There was a famous family who had no genetics for speaking properly. It appears to be a phenomenon that requires certain brain processes supported by tiny cellular structures and fluid molecular responses. And then a further set of capacities allow the understanding of the relationship between sounds and little marks, usually on paper but maybe on a computer screens.

Plains Indians didn’t ever develop written language in which a mark equaled a sound, though they did use Asian-style marks as symbols -- never developed as far as Chinese written language. It was no handicap not to read and write. In fact, in “white” society in the past it wasn’t all that big a handicap, although always a marker for the elite, which is why blacks were FORBIDDEN to become literate.

Certainly, as Brian would say, an education ought to be an entitlement and universal education is a prerequisite for a functioning citizenry who can support democracy. But no matter all that, some children are going to be left behind. Some children really are NEVER going to learn to read. They can’t even learn to physically sit down and read a book -- I’m thinking of fetal alcohol syndrome victims among others, like victims of head traumas.

Yet, rather like Brian, I don’t want the focus to be on which kids will fail and why unless it points to what can be done about it and is accompanied by the will to do it. I have the uneasy feeling that the Bush administration, in their usual doublespeak way, was really trying to find ways to stigmatize individuals and groups so that they COULD be left behind, thus freeing up funds that could be better used for corporations and war-mongering. Which kids can we safely leave behind because no one cares?

The Act is also a way of sneaking up on public education, making them prove they are doing something, in a world where expectations of public school include things like compensating for absent parents, supporting huge athletic programs for the entertainment of adults, curing alcoholism, preventing child abuse, and so on and on. I think the covert goal is privatization of education and it is well underway in Browning where there are now FOUR private schools: one Catholic, one Baptist, one based on Immersion Blackft Language, and one sponsored by Blackfeet Community College. They have no public funding and therefore can leave behind whatever kinds and however many they choose.

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