As state budgets around the country are slashed to accommodate the expense of the war on terror, the pursuit of educational opportunity for all seems ever more elusive. While standardized tests are supposed to be used to diagnose problems and facilitate individual or institutional improvement, too often they have been used to close or penalize precisely the schools that most need help; or, results have been used to track students into separate programs that benefit the few but not the many. The implementation of gifted classes with better student-teacher ratios and more substantial resources often triggers an unhealthy and quite bitter competition for those unnaturally narrowed windows of opportunity. How much better it would be to have more public debate about why the pickings are so slim to begin with. In any event, it is no wonder there is such intense national anxiety just now, a fantastical hunger for children who speak in complete sentences by the age of six months.
A friend compares the tracking of students to the separation of altos from sopranos in a choir. But academic ability and/or intelligence is both spikier and more malleably constructed than such an analogy allows. Tracking students by separating the high notes from the low only works if the endgame is to teach all children the “Hallelujah Chorus.” A system that teaches only the sopranos because no parent wants their child to be less than a diva is a system driven by the shortsightedness of narcissism. I think we make a well-rounded society the same way we make the best music: through the harmonic combination of differently pitched, but uniformly well-trained voices.
A parsimony of spirit haunts education policy, exacerbated by fear of the extremes. Under the stress of threatened budget cuts, people worry much more about providing lifeboats for the very top and containment for the “ineducable” rock bottom than they do about properly training the great masses of children, the vibrant, perfectly able middle who are capable of much more than most school systems offer. In addition, discussions of educational equality are skewed by conflation of behavioral problems with IQ, and learning disabilities with retardation. Repeatedly one hears complaints that you can’t put a gifted child in a class full of unruly, noisy misfits and expect anyone to benefit. Most often it’s a plea from a parent who desperately wants his or her child removed from a large oversubscribed classroom with a single, stressed teacher in an underfunded district and sent to the sanctuary of a nurturing bubble where peace reigns because there are twelve kids in a class with two specialists and everyone’s riding the high of great expectations. But all children respond better in ordered, supportive environments; and all other investments being equal, gifted children are just as prone to behavior problems–and to learning disabilities–as any other part of the population. Nor should we confuse exceptional circumstances with behavior problems. The difficulty of engaging a child who’s just spent the night in a homeless shelter, for example, is not productively treated as chiefly an issue of IQ.
The narrowing of access has often resulted in peculiar kinds of hairsplitting. When I was growing up, for example, Boston’s Latin School was divided into two separate schools: one for boys and one for girls. Although the curriculum was identical and the admissions exam the same, there were some disparities: The girls’ school was smaller and so could admit fewer students; and the science and sports facilities were inferior to those of the boys.
There was a successful lawsuit to integrate the two schools about twenty years ago, but then an odd thing happened. Instead of using the old girls’ school for the middle school and the larger boys’ school for the new upper school, as was originally suggested, the city decided to sever the two. The old boys’ school retained the name Boston Latin, and the old girls’ school–smaller, less-equipped–was reborn as Boston Latin Academy. The entrance exam is now administered so that those who score highest go to Boston Latin; the next cut down go to what is now, unnecessarily, known as the “less elite” Latin Academy.
One of the more direct consequences of this is that the new Boston Latin inherited an alumni endowment of $15 million dollars, much of it used to provide college scholarships. Latin Academy, on the other hand, inherited the revenue of the old Girls’ Latin alumni association–something under $200,000. It seems odd: Students at both schools are tremendously talented, the cutoff between them based on fairly insignificant scoring differences. But rather than pool the resources of the combined facilities–thus maximizing educational opportunity, in particular funding for college–the resolution of the pre-existing gender inequality almost purposefully reinscribed that inequality as one driven by wealth and class.
There are good models of what is possible. The International Baccalaureate curriculum, which is considered “advanced” by most American standards, is administered to a far wider range of students in Europe than here, with the result that their norm is considerably higher than ours in a number of areas. The University of Chicago’s School Mathematics Project, originally developed for gifted students at the Chicago Lab School, is now recommended for all children–all children, as the foreword to its textbooks says, can “learn more and do more than was thought to be possible ten or twenty years ago.” And educator Marva Collins’s widely praised curriculum for inner-city elementary schools includes reading Shakespeare.
Imparting higher levels of content requires nothing exceptional but rather normal, more-or-less stable children, taught in small classes by well-trained, well-mentored teachers who have a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and literature themselves. It will pay us, I think, to stop configuring education as a battle of the geniuses against the uncivilized. We are a wealthy nation chock-full of those normal, more-or-less stable children. The military should not be the only institution that teaches them to be all that they can be.