Grouping by Ability and the Good in the Common Core

As a teacher, with a doctorate in education, a specialty in curriculum and instruction, and a Ph.D. in psychology, I have long been concerned with the quality of education in our country. No one would argue that when it comes to education, we are no longer as competitive with countries such as Germany and Japan. However, what you may not know is that after World War II, the United States created the educational pedagogy for both countries.

So, you may ask: Why have both Germany and Japan surpassed the U.S. academically? In those two countries, they tend to group students homogeneously according to academic skill levels, as we once did. However, in the 1980s, the United States changed its educational model. In an effort to neutralize the differences and inequalities of minority and economically challenged students, we threw the baby out with the bath water and penalized the academically accelerated child. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and the critics of academic grouping felt that the process itself stigmatized and discriminated against gender, minorities, and poverty. It was believed that such grouping fostered inequality and bias.

Though we are all equal under the law, we are not equal in intelligence, emotional intelligence, talents, or gifts. Yet, we all have a gift distinctly and uniquely our own. One child should not be asked to sacrifice their academic opportunities for another. Students should go to school knowing they are getting the best education. A mainstreamed, self-contained curriculum cannot meet the needs of such a disparate group. The accelerated child often feels disenfranchised, bored and misbehaves; average children may feels pressured to perform at a level beyond his/her capacity; and, the poor student can feel completely lost.

There is hope. There is a way to give each child what they require without stigmatizing, humiliating, or shaming anyone. Children don’t have to be identified as “gifted” or “talented.” Children are more than their labels.

When I was a girl, they had accelerated classes that you could work toward that were fluid enough for students to move in and out of as they progressed in school. If academically accelerated children are held back by more average or academically challenged children, they may become marginalized, discouraged, and lazy. This is a sure way to lose their edge and their gift. The average child, compared against the accelerated child, feels inadequate, stressed, and pressured as they recognize that they are not learning at the same rate of speed as their accelerated peers. The academically challenged child is short-changed, adrift academically, and missing out on the opportunity to learn necessary life skills.

I believe that under the new Common Core State Standard initative, which offers national standards in math and reading, we have the potential to educate our children in a way that once again meets them at their level and gives them the best possible advantage to learning. It opens the door to once again allow children to be grouped by academic achievement in particular classes. To be grouped according to their academic achievement, subject-by-subject, unifies the essential skills that children must accomplish in each grade. This approach has nothing to do with indoctrination or ideology, but rather, has the opportunity to stabilize curriculum, so that children have standardized subject matter for each grade.

If labels are taken away, such as “gifted” and “talented,” and replaced with more appropriate credential of “accelerated,” then all children have a uniform opportunity to move into accelerated classes based on their own academic performance… or not. This gives more power to the child, who doesn’t feel “less than” or without gifts and talents.

This is what we have taken away from education: the idea that children have choice, responsibility, and obligation for their own actions, and that rewards come from their performance, rather than some innate talent or gift. While there is no perfect solution, the Common Core State Standards initiative offers a clear, challenging set of higher standards that are uniform across the board, as well as the opportunity for accelerated learning, thus giving our students the opportunity to rise up and compete with their counterparts in other countries.