The Way I See It... All Children Should Learn If Schools Adopt New Methods By Steve Libowitz My twin daughters, Hayley and Jessica, just turned 13 months old last week, and they're already reading. I walked into the den the other day to find Hayley lying on her back on the floor, holding a book at arm's length over her head. "Abba, nana, dada," she read aloud, then turned the page. Among the hundreds of magical moments they have given me this first year of their lives, none seems to amaze me as much as watching them learn. I feel an incredible rush of delight when they nestle down into my lap with a book. We don't get very far. I've introduced each of them to Peter Rabbit and his siblings dozens of times without ever getting to the part where Mr. Rabbit becomes the main ingredient in Mr. McGregor's pie. But what they seem to lack in attention span they make up for in expectation. They are at that stage of childhood when they are hungry to learn. And I am at the stage of parenthood when I wonder who will be their teachers, and what and how will they be taught. I am blessed with a wife who is a loving and devoted teacher for them. And we are fortunate that we have a nurturing babysitter, adoring grandparents and relatives and a circle of godparents who love taking them out and showing them parts of the world we never seem to get time for these days. But I wonder who will teach them in a year or two, and in kindergarten and the all-important first grade, and beyond. In our family, education is the most important thing to share with our daughters after our love; maybe it's the same. My wife and I wonder out loud about what sort of students they might be and how we can best help them learn. Our home is stuffed with books that the girls, now, mostly use for snacks or as objects to fight over; but we wonder if they will be the avid readers we are. Will they be interested in exploring history and philosophy and the arts and sciences through the collection we first present to them? Beyond our home, we want them to have an education that fosters that sort of hunger. We bought our first house in a neighborhood where the public elementary school has an outstanding reputation. But still I worry about the quality of that education. I have had concerns about our schools since I was still in them, perhaps because of that. I was reading about Summerhill in the late sixties, thinking how wonderful such an open, liberated education would be. But nothing seems to have come of those education experiments, and the schools continue to slide into, sometimes violent, medicocrity, or worse. I believe in the public school system; I want it to work for society and, especially for my children. But for all the talk of reforms, it seems very little innovation sticks. That is why I was so pleased for the researchers at the Hopkins Center for Social Organization of Schools, the institute just off campus, on Charles Street. All summer they held their collective breaths in anticipation of receiving the largest research and development grant ever made by the U.S. Department of Education: five years, nearly $28 million. I worried along with them. It was their livelihood that was at stake, of course, but it was my daughters' lives, their futures, that I saw hanging in the decision as well. Why? Because for 26 years, the various research projects of CSOS have led to school reform programs that work. Because they seek to change schools to help not only students from socially or disadvantaged familes, but students from all families. Because they believe that all students can learn, and their research and program development reach to achieve this goal. And because they base their research in scientific methods rather than on fads and cultural convenience. Success For All, an elementary school program whose goal is to have every child reading at or above grade level by the third grade, is a good example of the progress they have made toward education reform. Begun as a pilot project in a few Baltimore schools in 1989, Success For All has now been adopted in nearly 100 schools in 20 states. The program targets students who are most at risk for failing or ultimately dropping out of school due to their social or economic situations. The most recent scientific evaluation of the program shows that the average Success For All child is performing better than 70 percent of students not in the program. By the end of the third grade, the students in the lowest 25 percent of their class are performing better than 93 percent of other students. And the positive results are still evident through fifth grade. The DOE grant will keep programs such as Success For All functioning and expanding, reaching more students who need to know that they can succeed in school and that education can be worthwhile, perhaps even fun. This sort of program will be important for my children's education, as well, because they may attend a school with kids who have not been motivated at home to love learning. But they will all learn together, one helping the other. If this is not the model, if researchers are not out there trying to help every child learn, then they all might suffer together. And I will not accept that anymore than will the folks at CSOS, who can now breathe easier knowing that their work can--and must--continue. CSOS director Jim McPartland got it right when he said that a lot was riding on this grant. I know a lot is at stake for my girls. Although we believe they have every chance to be gifted students, Hayley may not write her first novel by age 7, and Jessie may not find that cure for cancer by age 10. Still, no matter what their IQ or test scores reveal, my daughters will grow to be strong, confident women who love learning. That's how I define success. And Success For All, and programs like it at CSOS and in other reform-minded enclaves on campus, such as the Center for Talented Youth and the School of Continuing Studies' Division of Education, are finding ways that work to make success possible for all students. And for that I am both proud and thankful.
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