Separate and Unequal: Intellectual Stratification in Schools

Separate and Unequal: Intellectual Stratification in Schools

Separate and Unequal: Intellectual Stratification in Schools

The dangers of classifying students according to their intellectual ability.


In one now-infamous imaginary British school, a sorting hat is responsible for deciphering the character traits and capabilities of young students and assigning them to the appropriate “houses”. Each house has a distinct reputation, some more distinguished than others. Now, another lesser known British school has a pretty controversial sorting process of its own.

The newly renovated Crown Woods college in London is separated into three schools. Upon exiting primary school, students are assigned to one of the three schools based on the results of “their year 5 banding score, a teacher assessment, and a cognitive ability test” designed to measure their intellectual abilities. To make the distinctions clear, the “gifted” students, who attend Delamere, wear purple ties and badges with their uniforms. Other students of “more mixed ability”, attend either Ashwood or Sherwood, and wear blue and red ties and badges, respectively.

The students are all keenly aware of the differences in their uniforms and of what those differences represent. In addition to the wardrobe variance, each school is its own autonomous entity located in a different building with different staff members and classes. Students also have lunch at different times in their respective locations and are separated by a fence at recess. However, the school’s other facilities are shared territory and students do come together for musical and athletic events.

While the details of this particular British school’s system may seem unique, it is not all that unusual. The intellectual stratification of students is certainly not a new phenomenon—nor one that is exclusive to the United Kingdom. Gifted and talented schools and accelerated curriculum tracks abound across the US with profound influences on students of all levels of ability.

There are definite benefits to being in an environment with other academically advanced students. Even the most patient and tolerant “gifted” students probably don’t want to consistently wait for another student to sound out the word when he or she has already finished the book. Yawning, doodling, and doing other work ahead of the class are not just acts of rebellion—they’re cries of boredom, and it’s refreshing to have them answered.

Still, those who argue that classifying students according to their intellectual ability is beneficial because it gives “gifted” children a chance to thrive and challenge themselves in a competitive environment and struggling students the time and attention that they need to succeed are only seeing part of the picture. The more obvious concerns are that–like the red and blue tie students at Crown Woods–“non-gifted” students know who the gifted students are and may feel pressure to catch up, succumb to feelings of mediocrity or inferiority, or harbor resentment.

Not all students literally wear their intellectual achievement as badges of honor attached to their uniforms (which messes with the concept of a uniform when you think about it), but students–advanced, struggling, and everyone in between–are cognizant of the labels we place upon them and of the expectations that come with them, whether those labels include “Honors”, “Advanced Placement” “International Baccalaureate”, or “Ivy League.”

Perhaps, a not-so-obvious concern is that a hierarchy exists in gifted schools. Inevitably, some of those “above average” students become average and even inferior in their specialized surroundings. Those same students may in turn be less likely to seek help when they need it because they feel that they are supposed to be “smart” or because they don’t want to be the one to slow down the accelerated pace. Everyone is not capable of simply rising to the new challenge in all disciplines.

Similarly, if all the “average” and “struggling” students are bound together, are they really getting the individualized attention they need? What happens when struggling students are forced to take a backseat to one another? Suddenly, someone in the “average” or “struggling” bunch realizes that they are not struggling as much, and they are just as bored as the “gifted” student once was, but with lower expectations and fewer prospects.

But these intellectual distinctions often persist outside of the classroom. It is one thing for the students at Crown Woods to be educated separately and sport attire to demonstrate this, but another thing to separate them during social periods, like lunch. In many ways, the intellectual prejudice and discrimination that results is the stuff of class wars that we are still battling today.

Without a doubt, the honor roll is definitely an ideal for which all students should strive. Those who make it there should be celebrated. But unlike that imaginary British school, the education system is not a place to practice wizardry. Students should not simply be sorted and pitted against one another in random intellectual and developmental matches because the consequences could ultimately be dire for our collective destiny.

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