Tuesday, February 22, 2005


America’s inner cities were decimated in the 1960s and ‘70s as middle-class white families moved to the suburbs, mostly to avoid school classrooms full of low-income minority children.

They called it “white flight,” though it was closer to “income flight,” since it’s well-known that weak demographics produce weak learners, and people didn’t want their kids swimming in that kind of academic sea.

It caused all kinds of social evils, including the expensive and ultimately ineffective court-ordered desegregation busing.

Now, to everyone’s dismay, the achievement gap between white children and those of color continues to widen, and schools and school staffs are even more segregated today than 30 years ago.

And you have to wonder: is the same thing happening in the Nebraska towns which have been inundated with immigrant families seeking entry-level meatpacking jobs? Look at Lexington’s public schools, with 32 percent of the student body non-functional in English, and 46.9 percent on subsidized lunch. Can you really blame longtime American citizens for option-enrolling their kids into nearby country schools where the numbers of kids with learning challenges aren’t as dramatic?

After all, it stands to reason that your children’s chances of academic success are better when the kids around them are good students, so everyone can learn more. Steel sharpens steel, and all that.

Besides poverty and lack of function with the English language, there are two other factors at work here: one is the far-ranging “inclusion” in regular classrooms of special education students with cognitive, behavioral or physical problems which might interfere with concentration or progress of their classmates.

And the other is the stubborn insistence of the educators to stick with “heterogenous” grouping – putting kids all the way along the academic achievement plumb line into the same classroom – instead of grouping students with those of about equal ability as much as possible, especially in the classes where it can really make a difference in overall learning.

In a classroom of 20 or 25 pupils, just one or two kids with really challenging special needs can become a virtual black hole for the teacher’s time and energy. Now imagine that it’s almost half.

That’s why some say the school-choice movement is a thinly-veiled attempt by middle-class Americans to escape the learning deficiencies which might hold back their children’s achievement because of classrooms with special-ed and English-language learners. Avoiding kids with academic problems, not minority skin color, is said to be among the causes for the boom in homeschooling and private-school enrollments, too.

Researchers such as Dale Schunk, educational psychologist with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, say that students will model on students with similar ability. That means that if the best students leave a classroom, the rest won’t lose much and will gain more of the teacher’s time and attention.

In fact, gifted-ed researchers Kulik and Kulik, and Feldhusen, who are tireless opponents of classrooms where kids of a wide range of ability are grouped together, say that separating strong students from weak ones is best for both. They’ve found that when gifted kids leave a classroom, they do better when they’re with other gifted kids, plus there’s a “blossoming” effect among the kids who remain. Suddenly, those dominant classroom stars are gone, and the average learners have a chance to shine. Invariably, they do

So, in a way, it might be better for all concerned if strong students do “abandon” public schools with lots of special-ed and English language learners.

But is this “fair”? Does it make it too hard for inner-city teachers or ones such as are working in Lexington, since their classrooms are losing or have lost academic role models to rub off on disadvantaged students? But we know that isn’t really how it works.

On the other hand, shouldn’t we be encouraging strong students to do what’s necessary to get stronger, not weaker, even if that means abandoning their neighborhood school?

Should we be forcing kids who don’t have problems to stay in classrooms with a lot of kids who do, in order to build unity in our country? United we stand, and all that?

Or is that slitting the throat of America’s future, reducing the opportunities for many of our kids after graduation, and dumbing down our future leaders?

Public schools now promise to give children equality of outcome – a standard education – but are they still giving children equality of opportunity? School-choice advocates say no.

There are strong opinions on both sides. For more from those who think school choice threatens the American way because it will give more learning opportunities to the rich and make inequalities of class and race even worse in this country, see the National Education Association’s take on school choice:

For those who say forcing strong or average learners to stay in classrooms with weak learners is stupid public policy and a radical attempt at widespread wealth redistribution in this country by crippling the futures of the middle-class with substandard education in the name of “equity,” see the Heritage Foundation’s article, “Why Catholic Schools Spell Success for America’s Inner-City Children”:

Comments: Post a Comment