I have written before about our biggest failing in the public schools - that we place students according to age, rather than ability, interest, and pre-requisite skills. On this point I would like to offer the following example using my Dad and me.
My Dad has amazing talent in construction and mechanical work. He can fix or build pretty much anything. Like most boys, I did not appreciate this while growing up; but as I got older, my appreciation grew. I remember once, not long after I moved out, stopping by for a visit. As I walked in, I found an enormous hole in the side of the house. My dad had ripped out the sliding glass door by the back porch and was installing a glass wall and French door combination. He said "hi", while scribbling some notes.
"Dad, when did you learn to do this?" I asked; overwhelmed with how impossible this task would be for me.
"Ummmm...", he uttered as he surveyed his work over his glasses, "Actually.... I've never done this before."
No instructions, no book. To my Dad, the next steps were self evident. This all made sense to him.
I understand this because I am that way with computers and electronics. I don't need a book or the directions, just give me a little time and I'll get it.
My Dad and I are both terrible at each other's strengths. I can't swing a hammer without being a danger to myself and others. My Dad keeps directions handy for copying and pasting text from one document to another.
So my Dad and I trade off skill sets. When I am back in Michigan, I tweak his computer and home theater. When he is in Utah, he helps me with some home project I have been dreading.
I know, I know... I am getting the better end of that exchange!
So how does this relate to school?
Let's say my Dad and I go to "construction school". Because we are both males, it makes sense to the school to put us in the same class. Due to our vast ability differences, there will be one of three results. They will:
- Teach at a level and speed useful to my Dad, and leave me completely befuddled.
- Teach at a level and speed useful to me, and leave my Dad completely bored.
- Teach at a happy medium, and be of no use to either of us.
That is where most schools find themselves. Effectively serving very thin slices of the population, while most students are befuddled or bored.
This is one of the primary reasons inner-city schools struggle more. Improper placement is more damaging in classes that have a wider range of abilities. When I taught in a 5th grade suburban school, most of my students were within a grade-level of "5th" grade material. Now I teach 6th grade at an inner-city school where few of my students can grasp "6th" grade material. My students range pretty evenly in ability from "5th" grade to "kindergarten".
But hey! They are 12! Who cares about ability, pre-requisites, and interest! Let's teach em' all the same thing, at the same pace!
When that doesn't work.... well, the politicians know where the real problem is......