This essay argues that schools for most of the 20th century constructed several categories of “dissimilarity” or different ability, and that these categories were created or soon appropriated to mean “children who cannot study together”. Important evidence accumulated throughout the century, but particularly over the last twenty years, shows that school categories that favor children’s similarity rather than their “dissimilarity” promise to improve educational equity and educational quality across the country. The grouping of skills has been supported by the argument that equality of opportunity in a democracy requires schools to provide each student with access to the knowledge and skills most appropriate to his or her abilities and likely adult life. To make the argument more palatable in a culture that values, at least rhetorically, classless and color-blind politics, educators and policymakers have objectified categorical differences between people. So in modern schools there are “gifted” students, “average” students, “Title I” students, “learning disabled” students, and so on, to justify the different access and opportunities that students are given. Assessment and assessment technology enables schools to categorize, compare, rank and assign a value to students’ abilities and achievements (as well as to students in other schools, states and countries – past and present). The homogeneous grouping began in earnest in the early 20th century. It conformed to the prevailing IQ conception of intelligence, behavioral theories of learning, a transfer and training model of instruction, and the factory model of school organization. It fits with schools’ role in maintaining a social and economic order in which those with power and privilege routinely pass their benefits on to their children. Homogeneous grouping embodied a belief that permeated school education in the 20th century – that we understand most about students by looking at their differences, and the more differences that can be identified, the better our understanding and teaching. The homogeneous grouping offered policymakers and educators a way to ‘solve’ a number of problems stemming from the growing diversity of students. New immigrants had to learn English and American. Factories needed skilled workers. The urban youth needed supervision. And schools have had to continue their traditional role of providing high-level knowledge to prepare some students for the professions. The policy defined equity in education as the ability to give all students the opportunity to prepare for a largely predetermined and certainly different adult life. At the same time, two phenomena shaped a uniquely American definition of democratic schooling: (1) universal schooling would give all students some access to knowledge; (2) IQ could justify differentiated access to knowledge as a sign of democratic fairness. While most current grouping practices do not rely on IQ—at least exclusively—the early reliance on it set a pattern that continues to this day. Standardized achievement tests, which are strikingly similar to IQ tests, play an important role in classifying students into ability groups and qualifying students for compensatory education programs. Standardized language proficiency tests determine which class “level” is appropriate for students with limited English skills. In conjunction with other measures, IQ remains central in identifying gifted and cognitively challenged students.
In the course of the 20th century, compulsory education laws and compulsory school leaving exams attracted more and more students to school – including those who were previously considered unfit for school. States and local school systems have developed a number of special programs for students who previously simply would not have attended school. In the 1960s, the federal government turned to special categorical programs as the primary way to provide education for all American students. The Basic and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provided categorical funding for “educationally disadvantaged” students. Lau et al. v. Nichols et. Al. was introduced on behalf of Chinese students in San Francisco and resulted in legislation mandating that all schools provide special assistance to students whose native language is not English. The Education of Persons with Disabilities Act (IDEA) provided funds to classify students with physical and neurological problems and to provide special educational programs to those students when it was deemed that they could not be placed in regular programs. Proponents of “gifted” students increasingly used “bell curve” logic to argue that gifted and cognitively disabled are like a pair of bookends and that those at the top of the curve also need special support because they are so different from “normal” students as well as disabled people. Educators responded in culturally predictable ways. They identified students who were “different,” diagnosed their differences as scientifically as possible, and categorized them. They then grouped students for class with others in the same category, tailoring the curriculum and classes based on what each group “needs” and what the culture expects. Today, educators routinely assign “normal” students to “normal” classes at various levels (e.g., high, average, slow). They place the others in “special” programs for learning disabilities, behavioral problems, giftedness, limited English, poverty-related academic deficiencies, and more. Within homogeneous groups, teachers assume that students can move through the lesson at the same pace and that all class members will benefit at the same pace from the same lessons on the same content. Just beneath the surface of these highly rationalized practices, however, lurk the illusion of homogeneity, the social construction of classifications, the dominant prejudices of race and social class, and self-fulfilling prophecies of possibility and outcome.
The significant student differences within supposedly homogeneous classes are obvious and well documented. And yet, for most people, the characteristics and categories by which students are sorted remain more striking than the “exceptions” that challenge those categories. Many educational constructs, including those used to classify students, began as narrowly defined, highly specialized technical terms or measures. However, they lose their narrow definitions and specialized uses as they move from research to academic journals and teacher preparation programs to popular media and into the everyday conversation of policymakers and the public. What may have started as specific technical concepts or as informal terms such as “at risk”, “gifted”, “highly gifted”, “college preparatory”, “attention deficit”, “hyperactive”, “disabled” etc. are quickly reified and over into one deeply embedded feature of students’ identity in their own consciousness and in the consciousness of others. African American, Latino, and low-income students are consistently overrepresented in low-achieving, special needs, and special education classes and programs. This is not surprising given that grouping practices emerged from the once accepted practice of preparing students from diverse racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds for their separate (and unequal) places in society. In part, the placement patterns reflect differences in the learning opportunities of minority and white students, which affect their preparation and achievement. But they also reflect the fact that US schools use white, largely middle-class cultural standards and language styles to look for academic skills and talent. Teachers and school psychologists sometimes confuse Hispanic and Black students’ language and dialect differences with poor language skills, conceptual misunderstandings, or even poor attitudes. An additional danger for black students is that schools often confuse cultural differences with cognitive disabilities, particularly retardation. Researchers over the past 25 years have found that students of identical IQ but different race and social class were classified and treated very differently in special education placements. The issue of misidentification sparked both federal and state court decisions requiring due process for potentially disabled students. In a far-reaching decision, the California courts ruled in Larry P. v. Wilson Riles (1979) argued that schools should no longer use intelligence tests to identify students from minority groups as mentally retarded. However, significant problems remain and new ones are emerging, including recent evidence that African American boys are disproportionately identified with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Being placed in a low grade becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations, fewer opportunities, and poor academic performance. Poor performance starts the cycle over again, giving schools additional justification for reducing expectations and opportunities. Extensive research shows that children in lower educational levels tend to receive less than children in higher education and gifted programs in all aspects of quality education. Finally, grouping practices help shape students’ identity, status, and expectations of themselves. Both students and adults confuse labels such as “gifted,” “honor,” “average,” “enhancing,” “learning disabled,” and “mild intellectual disability” with attestations of general ability or values. Anyone without the “gifted” label has the de facto “not gifted” label. The resource classroom is a low-status place, and students who go there are low-status students. The result of all this is that most students have unnecessarily low self-concepts and schools have low expectations. These recommendations reflect the growing support for a diverse grouping needed to ensure all students have access to quality curriculum, teachers and learning experiences. For example, early analyzes of US students’ disappointing performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) supports growing concerns that the low scores are partly due to the pursuit of most American students in less academically demanding math and science classes . Educators and policymakers are increasingly becoming aware that schools cannot teach or achieve social justice unless they eliminate grouping practices. In a number of cases of desegregation in schools, this practice has been cited as a source of persistent racial discrimination. This goal will not be reached quickly, however, and political accounts will simply gather dust unless enlightened educators understand and act to change the norms and political relationships that these grouping practices embody. There is a long, hard road ahead of us.
Thanks to Megan Wilson | #Equal #Education #American #Students