03/24/2011 04:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Beethoven? That's Easy, He's a Dog

Before class began the other day, one of my students asked me about how the heart functions. She needed to write down an answer on a homework sheet.

"What do you think the heart does?" I asked her.

"I don't know."

"No idea?"

"No. Breathing?"

I teach English, but that day, I taught my students about the circulatory system. Another day, when eight out of eight students couldn't name a religion other than Catholicism, I charted out a few others for them on the board. One kid didn't know the order of the seasons. He skipped over a slew of them, going straight from August to December. Just one of my 30 seventh graders could find Canada on the map. The others looked for it near Asia, or Europe. Europe? A continent? What? Isn't Texas a continent?

I don't know why these kids lack basic knowledge across all subjects. They are predominantly Hispanic, and poor, by measurable standards. They haven't seen much of the world outside their own neighborhoods. They don't read or listen much to the news. But they come to class. And I know that in class, teachers have presented the material. Seven years' worth of teachers have presented the material because if they didn't, they wouldn't be following the state-determined curriculum that includes the material, and they would be evaluated harshly by their administrators. No teacher wants that. So, they stick to the state-determined curriculum like a dictate from on high, following the number-coded concepts, correlating them to a master checklist, even inputting the codes into a computer-generated student tracking system. Katie doesn't get 27.351.54, they know. But how to teach her? Not so sure.

Even the lesson plans I've seen have the codes marked on them, next to the skill or idea they will teach. Teachers do not veer, unfortunately. And that is a different conversation. But they do seem to send the pre-approved product into the air waves. I am sure that the science teacher explained how the heart pumps blood, but when I described the four chambers, I could have been talking about green beans. I bet that at some point, a teacher displayed a map of North America... just a hunch... and even pointed to Canada.

So, the conundrum remains. Information is presented. It floats through the ethers, sits on the walls. It is there for the taking. And the takers, the brains for which it is intended, are nearby, within range to receive the message and internalize it. But they don't. What gets in the way, I want to know. What derails the message? And where are the obstacles -- close to the source, or to the destination? Have the obstacles changed year to year? Was the information ever received? Was it picked up in first grade but lost? Does the derailing accelerate once the train is off the track and skidding into the pine trees? Does it become habitual? And the gigantic question -- why do schools send these kids along, and along, when they are so far into the forest? Why are teachers forced to present a swarm of facts when there is no foundation on which to understand them? You can't expect kids to comprehend the notion of world civilizations when they can't address an envelope.

I decided to give a quiz. Here is a sampling of the results, of 26 tested:

  • Who is our Vice President? 0 correct answers.
  • Where is Paris? 8 correct.
  • How many weeks are there in a year? 4 right.
  • Who is Picasso? 5. "The guy with the big nose" is not an acceptable answer.
  • What is gravity? 7. No credit for "air."

Three students could name three Asian countries (one of the kids is Korean). None could explain the term, civil rights. None knew that Texas is located in the southwestern region of the U.S.

All but two of these students have attended Dallas public schools, or other Texas public schools since the first grade. Interestingly, the two, ESL students, outperformed their classmates on the quiz. None demonstrate behavioral problems, though about a third of them talk a lot, and distract easily. The ones who talk the most know the least. The others try, for the most part, and they all are happy when they do well. Who isn't.

I have a few thoughts about why these kids know so little. I think that they are lousy listeners. After an assignment is given, more than half of them ask what the assignment is. Even when they do appear to be listening, they have difficulty attending. A bug on the window will divert their attention, and then cause disruption because they have a need to tell someone else about the bug. Also, I don't sense any real concern among many of them about what is at stake if they don't increase their base of knowledge. They seem pretty happy knowing what they know. They rarely ask to know more. I think that if they don't understand the answer to a question, it doesn't bother them that much. I can't imagine they weren't more curious when they were younger.

But I do know that they are able to learn. For 45 minutes, they absorb what I teach them. I check at the end and they get everything right. The next day, though, they can't remember. I have to start over. They haven't thought about English for 24 hours, or discussed it with anyone, or used it, so it drifts away. Like perfume in a wind.

Probably, not all seventh graders seem this way, but it has been my experience in the six months I have been teaching middle school. For me, the only thing to do is to back up and start as close to the beginning as need be. This has meant second grade. Long vowels. Short vowels. City. State. Muscles. Lungs. I don't know that there is anything else to do, or that even seasoned educators can combat the gaps without remediating first. It's like the two wars that Bush handed Obama.

It also seems imperative that I know how to explain all sorts of things, including subject areas for which I did not pass a $120 multiple choice test. Not a product of education school, I am fortunate to have a diverse liberal arts background. I remember that my teachers had similar academic training, back when kids seemed to do better in school. Mr. Maloney could teach us anything.

Given the dismal academic statistics of many urban high schools, I would suggest that the middle schools that feed them stop what they are doing, immediately, and back up. Way back. They need to recognize what is missing and begin again. And then, there are no guarantees.

The last question on my quiz asked, "What is an adjective?" It was the only question about language. A four foot sign hangs in my classroom, reminding students about the parts of speech, which we review every day. But not the day of the quiz.

Just the two ESL students answered correctly. The others left the space blank.