Saturday, February 19, 2005

Equal Education?

Teacher Bronwen DuHadaway over at Suburban Decay has a fine rant on full inclusion. (Before reading on, I would head over there and read it.) It made me ask myself what the best way to give kids an equal education is. It was a surprisingly easy question to answer.

UPDATE: Please read this clarification before continuing on in with this essay. Thanks, ~Quincy~

What is an equal education?

It comes down to whether all students should get the same presentation or should learn the same material and skills. The traditional view holds that schools should place students into similar-ability groups to allow teachers to teach to a specific level. The progressive view holds that every class should have students with diverse abilities so that the very able can help the least able.

My view is that an education should be equal grade by grade, e.g. all students who have completed third grade will have mastered the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Not all students will choose or be able to complete 12 grades in a public school, a fact we must acknowledge. We must, however, make sure that when we promote a student to the next grade, he has learned the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed there.

"From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."
-Karl Marx
While I find Marx on the whole misguided, I think the second half of this motto is rather wise when applied to education. To achieve an equal education, each person must receive instruction tailored to his needs to arrive at the same educational goal. Aside from private tutoring, which would be impossible for any school to provide every student, grouping students with similar abilities in classes is the best way to instruct each according to his needs. According to superficial logic, this is anti-egalitarian, since it means different groups will be educated in different ways. However, when we look at Marx's motto further, we find that he never argues that equality is egalitarian; rather he is arguing that a certain kind of inequality is egalitarian. Marx realizes that each person is different and that some will be able to give more while others will need to get more. I call this egalitarian inequality.

Tracking by ability

Tracking according to achieve similar end results is an example of this kind of egalitarian inequality. If we view student abilities as a bell curve, three categories of students will emerge:

The exceptional-ability student: These are the students at either the extreme low end (severe LD) or extreme high end (high-level genius) of the curve who require individualized education because of their ability. Neither end of the curve is able to get an equal education in a normal classroom. A normal classroom teacher is not be able to give a severe LD student the individual attention he needs to learn the material, nor is the teacher able to give a high-level genius the amount of material or quick pace he needs to remain engaged. If that classroom teacher did either of those, then he would not be serving the rest of the class. It is clear that these students should get the specialized education they need to achieve an equal education.

The different-ability students: These students learn at a pace different enough from that of normal students that they would not get the education they need in a class where a year's worth of material is covered in an academic year, or about 9 months. It may take a student on the low end of the curve thirteen months to learn the material, while a student on the high end of the scale might learn it in four. These students should be placed in classes with those who learn at a similar pace as they do to ensure an equal education.

The general-ability students: These are the students for whom which can be divided into three rough categories: below average, average, and above average. In my experience, most honor students in my experience fall into the above average category, not the range mentioned in the previous paragraph. These students, which comprise the majority of those in schools, are well served by the normal classroom since it was designed for them.

The exceptional-ability students should be working with individual educators. If the educator determines that it will take 30 months for a severe LD student to master a grade's worth of material, then that student should be tested in 30 months, not at the end of an academic year. Likewise, if a high-level genius will complete a grade's worth of material in 3 months, he should be tested at the end of three months. As I said way up top, the students at the extreme would take the most resources.

For different-ability students, the school or district should create small groups of students, say 6-12 each, and then let the teacher set the pace. The idea is the same as above, except applied to small groups.

Students who lie in the middle of the curve should still have different tracks in different subjects. Once students have mastered the mechanics of reading, usually by the end of third grade, different literature tracks should be available. Same thing when students have mastered arithmetic. Students who show different aptitudes for science should be able to take different science tracks starting in sixth grade. Same thing with History. Civics should be taught in ninth grade instead of twelfth. The lowest of the tracks available to general-ability students should lead to completing twelve grades in 12 years. The most rigorous of the tracks should lead to completing twelve grades in 9 years.

Of course, doing this would logically prevent putting all these levels in the same classroom. However, since logic never stopped this mainstreaming in the first place, the next step would be to make clear that these tracks will be taught by different teachers in different rooms.

Graduating on time

Now, for students to get an equal education under this plan, we have to do away with the concept that students should graduate high school after 12 years in the school system. (I'm not counting kindergarten here.) It is this concept that leads to social promotion, which in turn leads many students to drop out when they end up in classes without the knowledge they need to succeed in them. It also leads to social retention, which is the practice of deterring advanced students from working ahead of grade level to keep them from graduating early. All this is done in the name of supplying an equal education, when it's really focused on providing the same education.

We must acknowledge that many people will take longer or shorter than 12 years to get a high school education. We as a society don't have a problem with people at the very top of the bell curve completing a high school education very quickly. In fact, we view them as a kind of cute novelty. "Hey, look at that 8-year-old going to Duke!" we say. We view them as so special that they'll be just fine in college.

We start to have a problem when it comes to kids completing high school a couple of years ahead of schedule.

Obviously, we have no problem with people who get through a high school education on time.

When it comes to people taking any longer than 12 years, we have a big problem. There is a stigma attached to not graduating on time. It would hurt the students' self-esteem to hold them back. We can come up with reason after reason after reason. These reasons don't matter, though. If we graduate students from high school when they've not completed a high school education, they have not received an equal education.

Certificates of competition should be created for grades below 12. Not all students will be able to, or want to, complete 12 grades worth of education in a public school. If a student has reached the age of 18 and has not completed 12 grades worth of education, he should have the option of continuing in high school or district-run adult-ed program or earning a certificate of competition for the highest grade reached and being allowed to proceed out into the world.

In addition, compulsory attendance must be changed to allow those who have graduated early from high school not to be in school. These students should have the option of working or just enjoying a year off.


We should give students the instruction they need to progress as quickly as possible through school. This entails separating students into ability tracks so that teachers may teach on a level relevant to everyone in the room. Doing so respects the students’ different abilities by acknowledging their different needs, something mainstreaming does not do. It also entails realizing that students may take need more or less than 12 years to complete a high school level education, and providing them with what they need to complete it at their pace.

TOPIC: Education