Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Same For All

One of the common arguments given against putting students in classes according to ability (rather than age) is that the student put in a lower level will get "stuck" at that level. Having been put in a lower track, they will never get out.

I think that hesitation is based on a common assumption that all students should be able to get to a certain academic location within a certain time frame. Somehow, it seems a horrid thought that someone should forever be a little slower in a particular subject.

This is one of the few areas of life where we cling to such an assumption.  In all other areas we know that people have different likes, predilections, tastes, etc.; and that all of these things have a factor in the person's pursuit and growth within a given area.  It is easy to see that some people favor mechanics, while others prefer literature.  Some have a  physique for certain athletics, while others have an ear for music.  We do not assume that because certain equations are accessible to Stephen Hawking that they can be grasped by everyone.  We would never think that, given enough training, just anyone could stand in the ring against Mike Tyson in his prime.  Nor would we think that because Einstein was not as well versed in history or languages, that he was somehow academically inept.

Yet, we are simply uncomfortable admitting that some children are better at this, while others are better at that.

It is understandable WHY we recoil at this admission.  Such language was used to keep races and people groups under subjugation. The non-privileged were told that it was their lot in life to do the menial labor or that education would be wasted on them - they should accept their position.

However, the practical upshot of our aversion is that we think everyone should do everything - so the child who is passionate about poetry is made to look a fool for not desiring quadratic equations; and the teacher who is unable to inspire passion for math in that student is defined as a failure.

Our American system is designed to teach the same thing to all children according to their age.  So classrooms in America are filled with children for whom everything is moving much too fast, or much too slow.  Huge gaps are never addressed for many, while others tortuously endure lessons in material already mastered.  Few students are getting the education that suits them.

Meanwhile, the educational community collects more and more data while expanding the testing schedule.

Liberals perpetuate the system because they believe everyone deserves the SAME education. Conservatives perpetuate it because it clearly harms the most impoverished neighborhoods and the results give them talking points for abolishing another public institution.

Is there any hope? I think so. My hope rests in families. Families doing their job sets the foundation for every child succeeding academically. Families being engaged and involved at their school generally produce good schools - which seem to be able to weather the storms created by the political powers around them.


Paul Sunstone said...

Thank you for a great post!

I think the educational system also lends itself -- for the reasons you've laid out -- to focusing kids on trying to overcome their weaknesses rather than build on their strengths.

That is, it seems to me that when we have a kid who is say, excelling at art, but doing poorly in math, we spend more energy encouraging him or her to do better in math than we spend encouraging him or her to take their artistic abilities to the next level.

If that's the case, then there would seem to be a sense in which we are encouraging mediocrity -- or perhaps even failure.

What an interesting post!

Andrew said...

Excellent point Paul, and I agree that we spend an inordinate amount of time trying shore up weaknesses, and little time in their strengths.

Bob said...

Great points. I would be interested in your thoughts w regard to supposed need to devote more resources to math and science.

dritta said...

Hmm... As a special educator I have to point out hat you seem to have forgotten to consider students with disabilities completely. And have you looked at the statistics on retention? Aside from students held back in kindergarten because of attendance, holding kids back (based on ability rater than age) leads to dropping out in high school. This doesn't seem to jive with your overall point, though perhaps I'm misunderstanding you.

Andrew said...

Bob - I think part of the problem with our international stats in science and math is that our fastest students are being slowed down. You have students who could EASILY test out of their year, but have to sit through it anyway. It gets better in HS when you have options, but for your first 8 years, you are pretty much stuck.

Dritta - not forgotten, but I wouldn't presume to speak for what best serves a student with special needs.

Retention and "holding back" assumes children are being placed by age... I think that whole system of thinking needs to be scrapped.

I have seen two schools that do not place by age. One was my first teaching assignment. Rather than grades, there were stages. A student typically spent 2 years in a stage, but they could leave after one, or stay up to three. Students who needed more time got it... those who didn't, didn't need to twiddle their thumbs.

There is a charter near me that does break out sessions for reading and math. The entire schools does those subjects at the same time and they are broken into 3 yearly chunks. Students are placed according to their learning edge, and have the opportunity to repeat or move ahead a chunk in the summer.

An often quoted problem is having kids of varied ages in classrooms. But I submit that it is we who have created this stigma. When I look in the park behind my house in the summer, I see varied ages playing together... yet we consider it anathema that varied ages might learn together.

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