The Educational Crisis In This Country (Now To Next with Dr. Kimberly Berens)

Dr. Kimberly Nix Berens is the Founder of Fit Learning and the Regional Director of Fit Learning Tri-State. Fit Learning, which started in a broom closet on campus at the University of Nevada, Reno in 1998, now has 31 locations worldwide, with three to five new locations opening each year.

For the past 20 years, Dr. Berens and her team have refined their system of instruction using behavioral and cognitive science. As a result, her system produces over one year of academic growth in about 40 hours of instruction. We’ll be diving into some of Dr. Beren’s scientifically proven teaching methods as well as discuss several talking points from her first book, Blind Spots: Why Students Fail and the Science That Can Save Them.

Shocking Statistics About The Level Of Education In The U.S.

Until I met Dr. Berens on a shoot for a new film I am working on, The Truth About Reading,  and heard about her book, Blind Spots, I was unaware of some major issues in education in the U.S. Dr. Berens describes it as a crisis.  She also says it’s not a new crisis, but one that has existed since the dawn of the public education system. From her point of view, one of the reasons behind this crisis is the lack of behavioral science (the science behind the learning process) in the mainstream education system, instead, behavioral science is typically only used as a tool when designing programs for special needs children. I asked her to give me some hard facts and figures reported by government commissions to support this crisis.

“There has never been a time in our country’s history when a majority of students have been at the proficient level,” shared Dr. Berens. Furthermore, she stated that more than 60% of all kids are below academic proficiency in all subjects. Dr. Berens goes on to explain that once you add race and socioeconomic status to the mix, those numbers rise further. For instance, more than 80% of children of color and those living in poverty are below proficiency in reading. And more than 90% of children of color are below proficiency in math and science. As Dr. Berens made clear in our interview, all children are educable, but the system doesn’t work for so many children. 

Many teachers are victims of the system too. This data isn’t intended to be an attack on our teachers, as we all know they have one of the hardest jobs and a majority of teachers care deeply for their students and are trying their absolute best to give them the knowledge they need. Dr. Berens doesn’t believe fault or blame should be placed directly on teachers because they aren’t receiving the training available to be as effective as possible in the classroom.  

Learning Disabilities Were Invented As An Excuse

Many people will find these statistics hard to believe. As a parent, I find it hard to believe the statistics as well. It’s always easy to deny the failure of the educational system, especially because as parents we count on that system to help us teach our children these skillsets. We don’t want to believe the school system is failing our kids, and most parents are also not trained to specifically help our children in these areas either. 

As mentioned previously, race and socioeconomic status do play a factor in the proficiency of reading, math, and science in children. Because of those disparities, in the 1950s, it was believed that children of color and those living in poverty were not capable of learning. Obviously, we know that this outlandish claim is entirely false and EVERY person has the ability to learn. However, as Dr. Berens explains, when rich kids couldn’t learn to read as well, affluent white parents started questioning why the system was failing to produce literate, educated children. Dr. Berens argues that these concerns directly lead to the diagnosis of learning disabilities, which began in the same time period, the 1950s. She argues these diagnoses are largely a distraction and an excuse that poses as the real reason why the education system doesn’t work. “First, they were invented to excuse failures by schools of rich, white kids. Now, it’s an unbelievably disproportionate amount of kids of color who are classified with learning disabilities. So that now, there is this medical reason why schools are continuing to fail to effectively educate children of color,” claimed Dr. Berens.

Sub-literacy Creates Shame And Insecurity In All Areas Of Life

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a congressionally mandated project administered by the National Center for Education Statistics started in 1969, more than 80% of low-income 8th graders scored below proficiency in math and reading in 2019. More than 90% of children of color are below proficiency in math and science.

People don’t talk about these things the way they discuss food insecurity. It isn’t like there is no food in the home at all, but not enough for three square meals a day. Sub-literacy can be comparable to that scenario, someone may be able to read and write to a small extent but are well below commonly accepted proficiency levels. Sub-literacy and illiteracy can also cause shame and insecurity in every area of life. Some people never learn to read properly, and although they may be brilliant in other areas of life, their inability to read causes shame. Inefficiencies in certain areas can affect every area of a person’s life. My hope with the documentary, The Truth About Reading, that I’m currently directing on sub-literacy is to change the conversation from shame to an open mindset of finding solutions.

Videogames Can Indicate Learning Ability

Most parents, especially if they have a child who has been diagnosed with learning disabilities, are concerned about the amount of time their children spend playing video games. However, Dr. Berens thinks there is some really good news for parents who’ve been told their child has a learning disability, and for any parent concerned that video games are solely a waste of time. As a professional and a parent, Dr. Berens states that “if your child is a proficient gamer there is absolutely nothing wrong with your child’s ability to learn.” Video games are created by people who understand behavioral science and how learning works. They’re designed to teach the skills needed to master the game early on and allows children to advance as they improve upon those skill sets. If you watch your child play video games you will understand the complex coordination required. 

Hope And Help Prevail

As Dr. Berens established, while 20% of school kids are classified as learning disabled, less than 1% actually have a neurological learning impairment. She shared that a lot of tests for learning disabilities don’t measure neurology. “It’s the child’s behavior that is measured, and an inference about why they behave that way is made.” She wants parents to be empowered that their child might not have a learning disability, at least from a neurological perspective. They may just be struggling to learn within the confines of the current mainstream educational system.

Dr. Berens makes clear that learning disabilities are a “doing” not a “having.”  You can teach kids to “do” something different that can lead to eventual mastery. But, when they believe they “have” something outside of their control like a learning disability, it’s extremely disempowering. All early readers reverse letters, but some are not properly corrected and taught how to distinguish between them.  There is hope. There is help.

To catch the full interview I had with Dr. Berens, you can watch on YouTube, listen to it on your favorite podcast listening platform. And of course, you can always reach out to me directly with any questions you might have!