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Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2008 | San Diego Unified school board member John de Beck made a common mistake in assessing the cause of student under-performance on standardized tests at San Diego’s newly constructed Lincoln High School. He said the problem was low “student motivation.”

What Mr. de Beck should know, but apparently doesn’t, is that very few of the students, less than 5 percent, entered the school proficient in the basic skills, concepts, background knowledge, and application capabilities — in reading, writing, critical thinking, literature, science, mathematics and history — required to meet the performance standards set forth for them.

The instruction these students encounter from kindergarten to grade 8, and, subsequently, in grades 9 through 12, is not designed to develop skills to proficiency. Although students possess the intellectual capability to achieve mastery, 90 percent graduate high school without doing so. This happens, primarily, because the K-12 program fails to teach many essential skills and seldom provides students with the instructional time and practice required to achieve full proficiency in established standards.

Underachievement usually begins in the earliest grades and continues, unabated for most students, through high school. This does produce low motivation. How many adults could engage, daily, in unsuccessful activities without eventually suffering low motivation? Still, it is a secondary cause. Engage these students in well designed, stimulating, successful learning activities — that develop skills, knowledge and application capabilities to proficiency — and they will thrive.

The performance challenge facing schools is systemic, but society is not yet prepared to undertake the radical redesign required to achieve universal student proficiency, the nation’s performance goal. During this period of national and world recession we should be mindful that if the United States is to remain a leading, prosperous economic force our children, all our children, must be successfully educated.

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