It isn't that nobody tries to help disadvantaged youngsters overcome their educational shortcomings. The problem, says Stanford University's Henry Levin, is that the effort frequently ends by making matters worse.
Typically, it begins with the assumption that slow-learning children cannot keep pace with their peers unless they are first given some catch-up knowledge and learning skill.
So what happens? They are placed in a less-demanding setting -- either by being pulled out of their regular class or by adapting the classroom to their "needs."
"This approach," says Levin, director of the Center for Educational Research at Stanford, "appears to be both rational and compassionate, but it has exactly the opposite consequences. It stigmatizes them with a mark of inferiority and reduces learning expectations both for them and their teachers, and it slows the pace of instruction to a crawl.
"The result is a school experience that lacks intrinsic vitality, omits crucial learning skills and reinforcement, and moves at a plodding pace. It is also joyless."
Levin and his colleagues have come up with an innovative approach they believe could bring permanent academic improvement to disadvantaged children. They call it the "accelerated school."
"The goal of the school," Levin has written in a paper describing his experimental model, "is to enable disadvantaged students to benefit from mainstream secondary school instruction by effectively closing the gap in elementary school.
"By bringing children into the educational mainstream, we mean more than bringing them up to grade level in basic skills measured by standardized tests. We are referring also to their capabilities in problem-solving and communication as well as their educational aspirations and self-concept as learners."
If that sounds like an academic pipe dream, Levin thinks it can happen. He draws unabashedly on the work of others: from Maria Montessori to James Comer, whose King School has been called the "miracle of New Haven." More significantly, he has removed his notions from the safe confines of the scholarly paper to the real world, undertaking to transform three tough elementary schools -- in San Francisco, Redwood City and Pasadena -- into accelerated schools. He's given himself six years to learn how to do it.
Some things he knows already: that parents, teachers and the community at large have to be brought together in unity of purpose; that teachers have to be given authority as well as accountability and that it is necessary to build on the strengths the children bring to school.
That last point is obvious enough in the case of middle-class children. Indeed, our schools are organized on the assumption that children have been encouraged to explore the reasons for things and that they are eager to learn to read because reading is important in their homes.
"But when poor children come to school lacking these built-in advantages -- without much orientation to the printed word -- we assume that they have no strengths on which to build," Levin said in an interview. "So what do we do? We teach them letters, then vowels and consonants and phonemes. It's really very boring."
The boredom is exacerbated in remedial classes. "We tell ourselves that these youngsters have to crawl before they can walk, and then we turn them into permanent crawlers," Levin says.
"The fact is, these children have tremendous amounts of language. They are incredibly verbal, but not very book-oriented. What we have to do is build on their verbal orientation and get them to see decoding as a means of access to the excitement of the printed word. And one of the ways we are trying to do it is by telling their parents two things they aren't used to hearing: that your child is going to do well and that we can't do it without you."
Some critics will see it as a failure that Levin has not worked out a can't-miss pedagogy. I see it as a major plus, giving him the opportunity to try a variety of approaches in order to learn what works.
It will take a while; six years seems reasonable. But after that time, and perhaps sooner, we will have a simple test to determine whether Levin's approach works:
Are these disadvantaged youngsters learning what the smart kids learn? I am encouraged by Levin's willingness to be judged on the answer to that question.