Tuesday, January 15, 2013

All Students Aren’t Equal

John Fogerty's well known song, "Centerfield" is a piece that captures the essence of the American dream. It is an ode to both baseball and spring, and it speaks to the confidence and hope that undergirds the spirit animating American aspirations. In the spring, the sap begins running and, whether it is baseball that fires a person's dreams or some other showcase that gives participants an opportunity to display the greatness that lurks just below their everyday persona, the refrain, "Put me in coach, I can be centerfield," captures a fundamental American ideal expressed by Thomas Jefferson at our founding: "All men are created equal."

Leaving aside the fact that Jefferson's notion of all men is different from modern views, he did succeed in expressing a belief that most Americans either explicitly or implicitly believe–that anyone willing to work diligently enough can aspire to achieve the heights of any endeavor. It isn't exactly true, of course, but the dream is so compelling, that very few are willing to give up believing in it.

This fundamental perspective causes us believe in some myths. The Beatles were just a bunch of regular guys who weren't that talented, but were in the right place at the right time. This belief persists even though, despite the passage of 50 years, the Lennon/McCartney song book remains very valuable and highly regarded. Michael Jordan, despite his clearly apparent and remarkable physical ability, is held up as an example to youngsters because he was cut from the freshman basketball team, the suggestion being that it was his refusal to give up basketball that allowed him to succeed and not his talent. Of course these myths are often supported by the achievers themselves, because talent is invisible to our self perception. We have never known any state of being other than the one we have always had, so it seems effortless for us to do that which we have always been able to do.

Jefferson’s legacy is a culture that does not truly believe in the efficacy of talent; the belief that hard work alone explains differences in achievement is fundamental to our sense of what makes America unique. Thus, even as some of you are reading this, you are working up a righteous anger at the idea that there are those who are born more talented than their peers. Your gut tells you this can't be true because you believe in the American ideal that everyone is equal to begin with. It is good old American work-ethic, perseverance, and positive attitude that allows some to rise to the top, not innate ability. For, if talent explains success, then it would mean that some of us are better than others of us. That just seems un-American.

The New York Times is stirring up some controversy on this front with an article about gifted programs. “Gifted, Talented and Separated,” by Al Baker, profiles Public School 163 in Manhattan, where the gifted classes are mostly white and the general and special education classes are mostly non-white. The demographics in the whole school are similar to the neighborhood and the New York school system, but in the two different kinds of classrooms, the education provided is not the same. In the gifted classes, students are pushed harder, asked to “...Think of things in complex ways, not just to memorize dates of the American Revolution or names like John Adams, for instance, but also to understand relationships between events and people, or to explain possible motives or forces behind certain events, like the Boston Tea Party.” The title of the article, of course, echoes the “separate but equal” doctrine that justified segregated schools of an earlier day, suggesting that the evils of racial bias have not gone completely away.

It seems to me, however, that two different issues are being lumped together in this article. One involves the process by which students are selected to be a part of the program, which the makeup of the two different programs at PS 163 suggests is not unbiased. Mr. Baker paraphrases James H. Borland, a professor of education at Teachers College, who suggests, “...That one of two things must be true: either black and Hispanic children are less likely to be gifted, or there is something wrong with the way the city selects children for those programs.” This is the issue that involves racial or socio-economic bias.

The other issue is not about what we normally think of as bias, but about the bias of talent. It is reflected in a quote from one of the parents of a student in a gifted class. She describes it as an “elitist” program, but she doesn’t mean it in a disparaging way: “They don’t advertise it the way it should be advertised, but I’m glad I was savvy enough to navigate the system and give my children what they need.”

Her use of the term “elitist” causes a lot of alarm bells to go off in many peoples’ minds because it suggests wealthy parents exercising an unfair advantage. To a degree this is part of the first issue of how students are selected. With an effective selection process, though, parents should find it difficult, or hopefully even impossible, to achieve an undeserved advantage.

The use of the word “elitist,” and the discomfort it causes, also reflects our cultural angst with the idea that some students may be “smarter” than others. No parent likes to face the possibility that their son or daughter is not as bright as others in the class, and conceptions of American equality predispose us to believe that differential, inborn abilities don’t exist. 

Every teacher is astutely aware, however, of the reality that all students don’t process information and learn with the same facility. We see it every day in our classes. Yet we have been told over the last 20 years or so that segregating students by achievement levels is evil, and that students with different learning rates benefit from being in the same classroom. Thus individualized instruction arose as the approved means of dealing with these differences. 

Despite what some have come to believe, you can’t multiply time by simply moving a kidney shaped table into the room and calling up small groups to work with the teacher. The result is not truly individual instruction, but relatively less supervised seat work. Paradoxically, individual instruction doesn’t really involve more teacher attention to each student, because you can’t multiply time. Teacher/student interactions are inherently limited by the teacher/student ratio.

All of this, of course, begs the question of why, given this predisposition to lump students together in multi-level classrooms, gifted classes exist at all. The answer, of course, goes back to the selection process and the influence that parents of gifted students have.

We can’t begin to approach this issue pragmatically, however, unless we accept that student abilities are not equal. Our goal should be to provide the support that each student needs to learn as quickly and comprehensively as their abilities allow them. Just as we have to accept that learning rates, and their resulting outcomes, will be different, we have to accept the need to create flexible learning environments which are truly adapted to student needs. In such environments, the instructional methods are likely to vary, and be based on instruction that is targeted to their needs, much as gifted kids get. At least part of the time, those environments are, likely to be filled with other students who learn like they do. If it is good for gifted students, it is should be good enough for all students.

Come the spring, our inner selves may still dream that we can be a center fielder, but practical considerations of our physical limitations tend to force us into being more realistic about how those limitations will limit the achievement of our fantasies. It would be to our children’s advantage if we could recognize those same sorts of differences in their rates of learning and design differential instruction environments that fit those rates rather than believing that one type is best for all (except, of course, if you are deemed gifted.) 

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