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Are Pete and Pam Wright the Enemies of Public Schools?

Joe writes, "Why are you telling parents how to use No Child Left Behind to fight public schools? Are you against public schools? Do you think people should place their children in private schools or teach them at home?"

It's time to tackle the idea that Pete and Pam Wright are the enemies of public schools.

Yes, we are frustrated about the education most children in public schools receive. Look at these statistics from the U. S. Department of Education:

  • Only 31 percent of 4th graders are proficient in reading
  • Only 17 percent of 12th graders are proficient in math
  • Only 18 percent of 12th graders are proficient in science
  • Only 11 percent of 12th graders are proficient in history
  • U. S. 8th graders rank below Bulgaria and Latvia in science

Sources: U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

If you are like most people, these statistics will surprise you. Pam finds these statistics frightening.

Learn how U. S. students rank when compared to students from other countries:

Trends in International Math & Science Study

2001 International Comparison of 4th graders

Get more information about student achievement in reading, writing, spelling, arithetic, history and science from the National Center for Education Statistics and The Nations Report Card at http://www.nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/nclb.asp

From Pam

Before I respond, I'd like to tell you a story.

In 1897, my grandmother left her family's comfortable farm in Iowa, and traveled by train and stagecoach to Miles City, Montana to teach school. She rode a pony to the one-room schoolhouse, and stoked a fire in the pot-bellied stove to keep her students warm during the long winter days.

Grandmother's students were the children of Scandinavian immigrants and Native American children from the nearby Redbud Indian Reservation. Most of her students were not fluent in English. Yet she taught her students to read, write, spell, and do arithmetic - in English.

My mother taught English and History to middle school students until she retired. My sister is a Kindergarten teacher. Many of her young students are recent immigrants who do not speak English. Perhaps my sister is following in Grandmother's footsteps.

I have high expectations for teachers. I believe my grandmother would be shocked to learn that 69 percent of children are not proficient readers in 2003.

I believe schools should teach all students to read. I believe teachers should have high expectations for all students - including poor students, minority students, English language learners, and children with disabilities.

I believe teachers should stop complaining that testing interferes with teaching and learning.

I am relieved that my doctor does not believe that testing interferes with his ability to practice medicine. (Recent xrays showed that my bone graft is beginning to mend.)

From Pete

NCLB was enacted because most children who attend public schools cannot read at grade level and because there is little accountability in public schools.

Children are not being taught to read, write, and do arithmetic because many public school staff have low expectations for their students, many public school educators do not have the necessary training and skills, and because many school districts do not use reading programs that are effective and research-based.

In my experience, most teachers at private schools have higher expectations for their students. I have seen thousands of children with disabilities learn to read and thrive in private schools after these same students failed to learn in public schools.

I am one of these students.

I attended Washington D.C. public schools for twelve years, from Kindergarten through 11th grade. I learned about low expections when my teachers advised my parents to lower their expectations because I was was not college material.

By the end of 11th grade, I had a D+ average and virtually no chance of being accepted by any college.

My parents withdrew me from public school and sent me to Moses Brown, a small Quaker school in Rhode Island where I repeated 11th grade. Two years later, I graduated from Moses Brown.

Apparently I was college material after all. I graduated from Randolph Macon College and earned a law degree from T. C. Williams Law School at the University of Richmond.

The Power of Low Expectations

Rod Paige, Secretary of Education, talked about the deadly power of low expectations in a recent speech to the Commonwealth Club of California. He said,

Changing the law is just the start of reform. To produce great schools worthy of a great nation, we must also change our hearts and our minds. We must let go of the myths and perceptions about who can learn and who can't.

Low expectations can take many forms.

It may be as explicit as buying into the stereotype that some people just are not as intelligent, so why bother?

It may take the shape of a misguided sense of compassion that says it's kinder not to give some children difficult material because they will get discouraged and give up.

It may even come from the simple fact that the teacher--also the victim of low expectations and poor preparation--has no idea how to fix the problem.

But explicit or implicit, intentional or not, the effect is the same.

Our Message

We think parents are responsible for ensuring that their children are educated and that parents cannot leave this job to others.

To help parents, teachers and child advocates, we filled the Wrightslaw and Fetaweb sites with hundreds of articles, with free access to all. We publish The Special Ed Advocate, a free electronic newsletter.

We write books about advocacy. We do legal and advocacy training programs around the country.

Are we enemies of public schools because we expect schools to teach all children to read?

Are we enemies of public schools because we expect schools to use research-based educational programs and methods?

Are we enemies of public schools because we want teachers to have high expectations for all students? Or because we want teachers to be better trained?

We don't think so - what do you think?

About Pete & Pam Wright

Paradise at end of the road - Champion of special-ed children still doing good while having fun. After visiting Pete and Pam, Bill Lohmann of The Richmond Times-Dispatch writes of "a fast-talking, hyperactive, former football player with a photographic memory and a passion for his work" who "fights for children and sails for himself," a man "who struggled through school, like the kids he helps, with learning disabilities," a man who lives in "a slice of paradise" with his wife, Pam. (August 3, 2003)

Championing Children for Whom Reading and Learning Are Difficult. Brent Staples of the New York Times asked, "Why is Pete Wright a warrior for children?" Mr. Staples found that "People who get help after suffering humiliation in school often grow up to be champions of children who remind them of their younger selves. This is what happened to Mr. Wright." (June 26, 2003)

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Last revised: 04/28/10

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