"All Children Can Learn: Facts and Fallacies" By M. Donald Thomas and William L. Bainbridge. Phi Delta Kappan. May 2001.

‘All Children Can Learn’
Facts and Fallacies

By M. Donald Thomas and William L. Bainbridge


The thinking behind a simplistic interpretation of "all children can learn" suggests that there is no need for adequate resources and child-friendly public policy, the authors point out.

A few decades ago, leaders in the field of school reform introduced the concept of "effective schools" as a way to identify what works best in educating children and to provide models for struggling schools to use for improvement. The effective schools movement is frequently attributed to the work of the late Ronald Edmonds. In a speech delivered to the National Conference of the Teacher Corps in 1978, Edmonds defined the five characteristics consistently evident in effective schools: strong leadership, clear emphasis on learning, positive school climate, regular and appropriate monitoring of student progress, and high expectation for students and staff. From these straightforward principles, an entire belief system has evolved that offers a variety of solutions that are designed to improve schools.

However, the effective schools movement, like most other reform efforts, has developed philosophical and political schisms along its major fault line: the central tenet that children’s learning can be improved if schools adopt effective practices. At its heart, this belief is positive, useful, and practical—but it does engender strong opinions and political reactions.

The initial understanding that school practices and policies can make a difference, even for children from homes in which parents have few educational or financial resources, has now been translated into the popular mantra "all children can learn." This phrase sometimes confuses the public and deters the possibility of substantially helping disadvantaged children obtain a high-quality, resource-rich education. In our view, because of the simplistic acceptance of this phrase at face value, the effective schools movement as currently promoted is contaminated with a series of fallacies and a number of unintended consequences. We offer the following ideas as a starting point for further, in-depth discussions that can lead to more thoughtful school policies.

The Fallacies

When we look at many of the potentially harmful policies and practices being implemented in schools today, we can only assume that they have been inspired by the following fallacies, which do not bear careful scrutiny:

The fallacy that all children can learn: at the same level and in the same amount of time. All children can learn, at some level, and most children, as Ronald Edmonds stated, can learn the basic curriculum if sufficient resources are provided. The fallacy, however, is the belief that all children can learn the same curriculum, in the same amount of time, and at the same level. The problem with such an unexamined belief is that it may be used to deny differential financial support for those who come to school with environmental disadvantages. Not all children have high-quality nutrition, stimulating homes, and extensive learning opportunities prior to entering school.

Research in cognitive brain development shows that formation of synaptic contacts in the human cerebral cortex occurs between birth and age 10, and most of the brain gets built within a few years after birth. Environment matters greatly in brain development. The period of early childhood is critical in brain development, and those who have high-protein diets and lots of sensory stimulation tend to have more synaptic connections. Brains that do not get enough protein and stimulation in their environments lose connections, and some potential neural pathways are shut down. These facts help to explain what educators have long observed: children from impoverished environments, in which they do not receive good nutrition and stimulating experiences, generally achieve at lower levels than children from more enriching environments.

This concrete evidence should be enough to convince us that we should concentrate on improving the lives of children before they come to school and not simply proclaim that "all children can learn" without enacting proper public policy to provide economic opportunity for families, healthcare for all children, and parenting education for young mothers.

If we as a society can summon the courage and will to do these things, then maybe all children can learn at higher levels and the gap between low-income and more privileged children can really be narrowed.

The fallacy of uniform standards for all children. Of all the fallacies being promoted, this is probably the most bizarre. Decades of history and mountains of research indicate that childhood development is unique for each individual. The idea that children and schools should be evaluated by a uniform criterion—usually a test score—has the potential to do untold damage.

Uniformity of measurement leaves out human judgment, the most critical element in decision making. Those who promote uniform standards (often state legislatures) promote a false system of evaluation that will probably disappear as rapidly as it has been established.

Although it is difficult to accept and even more difficult to admit, children in the United States do not have equal opportunities to succeed. In time, with enough effort and money and solid social policies, the achievement gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged can narrow. Until then, however, it is unfair to treat all children and all schools "equally" by setting standards that are not equitable. The assumption that all can meet these standards—without our providing educationally disadvantaged children with the extra support they need to achieve at high levels—perpetuates injustice.

As Edmund Burke stated, "The equal treatment of unequals is the greatest injustice of all." This statement has been inscribed on our national documents and should be chiseled into the hearts of all school personnel and those who enact education policy.

Unintended Consequences

Next, let us discuss the unintended consequences of the simplistic "all children can learn" approach. These include:

Establishing accountability based on state-developed tests. The belief that "all children can learn" has spawned a movement of testing as the basis for student promotion, student graduation, evaluation of school personnel, and state and federal funding. Our experience with state-developed criterion-referenced tests leads us to the conclusion that most of these tests are either too simple or too difficult. In either case, they are inappropriate measures of school effectiveness. Not one study in the school literature can correlate a test score with either student success or teacher effectiveness. Tests created at the state level and imposed on schools may appear to be "politically correct," but their educational value is highly questionable.

As Linda McNeil points out, forcing arbitrary punitive standards on schools undermines both teaching and learning and results in "growing inequality between the content and quality of education provided to white middle-class children and that provided to children in poor and minority schools." In Texas, for example, McNeil found that, even though scores on the state-mandated Texas Assessment of Academic Skills were going up in many disadvantaged schools, teachers reported that students’ ability to use the skills that had been drilled into them for the test was actually declining. In fact, she claims, "this system of testing is restratifying education by race and class."

Downplaying the need for early intervention for children who live under conditions of poverty. The "all children can learn" mentality is dangerous because it may lead us to assume that all children can meet the same standards no matter how well or ill prepared they are to start school. This assumption in turn excuses us from addressing the need for better early childhood programs. To claim that "all children can learn" without recognizing that some children start school on a very unequal footing burdens our schools and teachers with daunting and perhaps insurmountable barriers.

An enormous amount of time, effort, and money must be spent to "reclaim" and "remediate" children whose skills lag behind those of their more advantaged peers. Yet there is a widespread attitude that, if students and teachers cannot overcome the obstacles created by poverty and poor nutrition in the short amount of time available in the average school year, they have "failed". This pressure is especially strong when children and their teachers are expected to achieve some arbitrary standard established by a state-mandated proficiency test.

The result of this attitude is that students rarely catch up, and teachers become demoralized. Sadly, this is the current situation in many of our nation’s public schools. Even more alarming is the tendency of the news media to leave an impression that gaps in performance among student groups are related to skin color or ethnicity.

Public policy in the U.S. is not as child-friendly as it is in many other countries, such as Sweden, Canada, Japan, or Israel. What is needed most to help children is for politicians to make good on their promise that "all children will be ready to learn" by the time they start school. Enacting public policy that establishes educational programs for very young children should be the major strategy for helping children achieve at higher levels and reducing the achievement gap between children of high and low socioeconomic status. Early intervention stimulates cognitive development, improves sensory development, and increases motivation to learn. It offers the best chance for all children to be ready to learn when they begin kindergarten. Providing good early childhood education is a big and costly responsibility, but this strategy is just, extremely cost-effective in the long run, and a measure of the character of a nation.

Using punishment as a motivator to improve our schools. Frederick Herzberg is dead, and with him the sensible notion that punishment never motivates nor serves as an effective way to improve our schools. The punishment mentality spawns take-over laws, zero-tolerance policies, threats to administrators of losing their jobs, and decreased funding for those schools whose students most need additional support. Whatever happened to "due process of law" and "positive reinforcement"?

Herzberg, Maslow, wherever you are, we need you now more than ever!

Time for Change

If Edmonds were still with us, we believe he would be appalled at what has happened to the effective schools movement. Unfortunately, what began as a noble process to help low-income children achieve at higher levels has become an educational albatross that punishes both teachers and students and declares that schools are ineffective when all children do not learn at arbitrary levels predetermined by individuals external to the schools.

The thinking behind a simplistic interpretation of "all children can learn" suggests that there is no need for adequate resources and child-friendly public policy. Assuming that all children can reach the same high standards through the heroic efforts of educators, without major changes in education and social policy, is similar to assuming that doctors can make all children healthy even though many do not receive adequate home care and appropriate nutrition.

We fervently hope that all children will be treated as individuals, achieving at various levels appropriate to their development, and that they will not be treated as learning at the same level at the same time-—all marching to the arbitrary beat of a state proficiency test. It would be much better for all of us to accept differences and provide sufficient resources so that each boy and girl has an opportunity to achieve at the maximum level congruent to whatever gifts or limitations each may have.

The time has come for educators to reexamine the slogan that "all children can learn." Let’s return to the basic research and stress the facts instead of the fallacies that have hurt so many of our teachers, schools, and children.