Kirwan Commission wrestles with best way to teach struggling learners

Sometimes to solve a problem of the present you need to look to the past. We members of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — also known as the Kirwan Commission — have come to our first major philosophical juncture as we address the question of how to best help struggling learners, especially those affected by concentrated poverty, and therefore how also to best spend tens of millions of dollars. To illustrate the issue, it is useful to look closely at two paintings created at the turn of the last century.

In 1907, the renowned British artist John Singer Sargent painted the image of Mrs. Huth Jackson. At the time Sargent was the reigning master of traditional portrait painting. The world that he depicted was evocative, lush and luxurious. His technique was impeccable and his reputation untarnished. But in this rendering of Mrs. Jackson, Sargent began to show the limitations of his vision and the trap of his fame. He had become redundant.

That same year, the young Spaniard Pablo Picasso created a very different kind of portrait. The cubist style of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon swirled with all of the psychological, technological, scientific and ethnological revelations of the dawning 20th century. For Picasso, the viewer’s perception of the world was not static and was influenced by the mind being redefined by science. Picasso created a world that Sargent could not or would not see.

A similar comparison can also be applied to the two major approaches for helping struggling learners that are now before the Kirwan Commission: that of comprehensive tutoring programs, compared with interventions aimed at the whole child and social-emotional learning. The tutoring approach suggests that systemic, tiered, response-to- intervention (RTI) type tutoring programs are the primary solution needed for helping struggling learners. The other approach focuses on educating the whole child while incorporating advances in neuroscience and cognitive development in order to create solutions that are more holistic.

Like Sargent’s portrait, the proponents of tutoring are not wrong in their world-view, but also like Sargent, they do not or cannot see the whole picture. While RTI programs were busy becoming the darlings of the failed No-Child-Left-Behind era, holding fast to techniques that would eventually barely move the needle of progress, a renaissance was taking place in such diverse fields such as neuroscience, economics, psychology and criminal justice that would uniquely inform our understanding of how human beings learn.

The new research showed us that while there are many factors that can influence achievement — including reading ability, mathematical agility, I.Q. and the most deterministic factor: self-regulation — all are greatly influenced by socio-economics. Students who are constantly being exposed to trauma often exist in an extended fight-or-flight state. Worry and survival surpass learning, potentially causing changes to the brain such as a smaller hippocampus or decreased white brain matter and even detrimental genetic changes through the process of epigenetics.

Comprehensive tutoring programs will not adequately solve the problem of struggling learners in Maryland. In Annapolis at the Kirwan Commission, this sentiment has been stressed a number of times. Recently, Ivory Toldson, professor of Counseling Psychology at Howard University, spoke out against tired tutoring solutions and instead requested that we first provide struggling learners — especially those in poverty — with safe, clean schools; good food; increased psychological services and quality administrators and teachers.

Our chief financial adequacy consultant, Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, did indeed recommend tutoring as a solution for helping struggling learners, but their research only supported one-on-one tutoring, not the multi-tiered, systemic, often scripted programs currently being proposed. As well, in a moment of rare emotion, the commission’s chief policy consultant, Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy, spoke passionately against RTI tutoring programs, calling them one of the main problems with American education because they offer Band-Aid solutions that do not address the real issues.

The problems that struggling learners face are often societal as well as academic. Let us use our educational resources to not just create students who can read, but also those who are additionally safe, active, nourished, creative, freethinking and self-regulating members of society.

Even today, Picasso’s vision of the world is complex and challenging, but it takes just one glance to realize that he was on the right side of history. When it comes to struggling learners, let’s make sure that we are on the right side of the future.

Morgan Showalter (morganshowalter@yahoo.com) is a high school special educator in the Baltimore City Public Schools. He is the appointee of the Baltimore Teachers Union to the Kirwan Commission.

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