Trapped in the Wrong Debate

In “Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor in Classroom,” the New York Times, June 10, 2013, reports that the pendulum is swinging back. In the 80s and 90s, many felt that separating children by ability would trap underprivileged or underperforming children permanently. Thus, we started treating everyone the same. Age became the sole qualification and children of all types took the same classes. 

It’s not just the children who are trapped here. It’s the adults and the entire discussion. I remember this discussion way back when I was in junior high school and it hasn’t really changed. Group by ability or not? In which case do the pros out weight the cons? Or maybe we can still group by ability part of the time but call it something else so it won’t raise hackles. Why reduce the world of education to a choice between A and B, or maybe A and a half? Are those really the only choices? Is this even the right question? What if we stepped back and talked about how to best educate children and challenged the current assumptions?

If you could start with a clean slate and imagine the best way to educate children, would you ever consider putting them into same-age groups of 30 or more? When you want your own child to learn, practice, or change their behavior, is your first thought to gather 30 other children around to help? When you want to learn something yourself, do you go out of your way to find a crowd? Do you find it helps you concentrate and think through tough problems? So why do we do it to our children?

Thirty something same-age children in one room is just one characteristic of our current schooling configuration:

  • Gathering all the children in one building
  • Loading busses with up to 60
  • Teaching 30 or more the same thing at the same time
  • Spending the entire day together every day
  • Standing in lines with hands at their sides
  • Walking single file
  • Sitting in uncomfortable desks
  • Sitting for extended periods
  • Expecting one teacher to perform miracles for 30 or more all day long with little pay
  • Expecting the same homework of each child each night regardless of circumstances or ability
  • Feeding them by the hundreds
  • Assessing progress with multiple choice tests
  • Encouraging them to value grades beyond almost everything else
  • Expecting all children to be assertive enough to get their questions answered

In an effort to mitigate the disastrous consequences of each of these, many band-aids are needed. Classroom aids, assigned seats, bus monitors, and “lunchroom ladies” are needed to help reduce the chaos. Security systems are needed to protect these targets we have created. Teaching to the lowest common denominator is a must to protect self-esteem and ensure no child is left behind. Eliminating peanut butter and balloons accommodates allergies. More tests are needed to perpetuate the system. More money is needed to get the children, parents, and towns excited about these institutions. But, the crowning jewel of all band-aids is this: when children fail to concentrate and sit still, we give them drugs.

Now why are we debating this one little aspect of a nonsensical structure?

What are we trying to accomplish? How would we know if we were successful? How many different options might help us achieve that success? These are the questions worthy of debate. This is where we need uncommon clarity.

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