The Wrong Systems, Not the Wrong Humans

The Wrong Systems, Not the Wrong Humans

In a pandemic that had altered so much, as we seek ways to return to “normal,” let’s not miss this opportunity to reexamine the systems we are restarting.

I once created and taught a sixth-grade biography unit that asked students to consider authors’ (and their own) beliefs around how people become heroes: were they born heroes (Superman), were they made heroes (Spider-Man), or did they become heroes through hard work (Batman)? I loved this unit. But as a leader, I think my framework missed the most important option: were they Ms. Jones? 

I met Ms. Jones when I was the ARC Literacy Coach for her rural middle school. It was September. I was cofacilitating the day of ARC’s curriculum where students identify their current highest independent reading levels (IRLA level), confer with their teachers, and begin to collectively set goals for growth. When I went to check one student’s progress, an English teacher stopped me with the warning, “Don’t check him, he is Life Skills.” Of course, I went right over. Ricky had accurately identified himself as currently reading at the end of kindergarten. Meaning he knew his letter sounds and had dozens of words he could recognize, but he couldn’t use those words to decode new ones. In eighth grade. After eight full years of school. 

Ricky’s district had a new assistant superintendent who was crystal clear that the current systems were failing students with IEPs. She had brought ARC to her district as part of her initiative to change those systems. Later that day, she and I, along with the school principal, sought out Ricky’s Life Skills teacher. Ms. Jones taught a class of four students in the basement. She had already taught Ricky for all of seventh grade. When we explained the IRLA and what it told us about what Ricky knew and what he needed next to grow in reading competency, she was unconvinced that this would make a difference but willing to try. 

By October, Ms. Jones was elated to report that Ricky had moved an entire level—or three months of reading growth—in one month. The assistant superintendent visited Ms. Jones with me on many of my ARC coaching days. Though I was there as the ARC literacy expert, she was the true systems expert. On every visit, she found another part of the system to tweak—from Ricky’s class schedule to how IEPs were written to ensuring Ms. Jones had coverage to attend the eighth grade PLC. In December, Ricky proudly read the four of us Fox on Wheels, an early second-grade-level text. Not a dry eye in the room. By March he’d made almost two years of reading growth in less than a year. 

In May, Ms. Jones was waiting for me as I entered the building with this story. “Monday, Ricky had a science test. Usually, I’m there to read him the test and help him take it. But I was late getting back from the dentist and he had to take it alone. Well, yesterday he came to me with his test. He got an A. All by himself. He said to me: ‘When I go to high school next year, do you think I could be in regular special ed? I hate being in Life Skills.’ And I told him: ‘Ricky, I already put in that paperwork. Because you should have never been in Life Skills in the first place.”   

I don’t tell this story to brag about ARC or to either vilify or lionize Ms. Jones, but rather to show that any of us can fail in a system that teaches us to treat children as anything less than brilliant or that fails to give us the tools to nurture that brilliance. Any of us can be Ms. Jones—perpetrators of inequity in the wrong system, or heroes in the right one.   

As we return to schools this fall, I ask us: are we providing the humans we lead with the same old tools that left us with less than 50% of fourth graders in the U.S. reading on grade level? With 10-, 20-, or 30-point gaps in achievement by race? With students stuck in Life Skills tracks still not reading in eighth grade? Or are we insisting on a new normal—on systems and tools that drive every human to become a hero who transforms the educational outcome for every single student? I hope it is the second. Let’s stop asking teachers to be Batman, or waiting for the educational equivalent of a radioactive spider bite. Ricky and Ms. Jones are counting on it. 

— Gina Zorzi Cline

Chief Program and People Officer, American Reading Company 

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