Labeling Students Then and Now (Part 1)

Twenty years ago, Sarah Deschenes, David Tyack and I wrote an article published in the Teachers College Record called: “Mismatch: Historical Perspectives on Schools and Students Who Don’t Fit Them.” 

Because of the pervasiveness of the age-graded school since the middle of the 19th century, “normal” students were those who satisfactorily acquired the slice of curriculum 1st, 5th, or 8th grade teachers distributed through lessons in their self-contained classrooms Those students who met their teachers expectations for grade-level academic achievement, behavior during lessons, and the school’s requirements for attendance and performance were “normal.” And “normal” students were the majority.

But a sizable fraction of students, for many reasons deviated from the “normal.” They didn’t fit. Since the mid-19th century until the present, these students have been given labels. They were (and are) “educational misfits.”

Examining the changes in the language of labels attached to students who strayed from the definition of “normal” required in age-graded schools offers reformers pause in considering the power of these labels over time. Especially now as the U.S. schools enter the fourth decade of the standards, testing, and accountability reform movement, surely an added template for judging “normal” performance.

Between the “normality” structured within the age-graded school and the state and federally driven standards movement since the mid-1980s, spotlighting the vocabulary educators used in the past to describe “misfits” may get all of us thinking about labels often used now.

I have chosen excerpts from the article to give readers a flavor of the both the labels used and the argument we put forth in the article. Part 2 will be the analysis of these labels over time and what they mean for the current standards-based reform movement.

In his illuminating study of “educational misfits,” Stanley J. Zehm has compiled a list of the varied names given to children who failed to do well in school….In the first half of the nineteenth century, when the common school was in its formative stage, writers spoke of the poor performer as dunce, shirker, loafer, idle, vicious, reprobate, depraved, wayward, wrong-doer, sluggish, scapegrace, stupid, and incorrigible. Although terms like dunce and stupid suggest that educators sometimes saw low achievement as the result of lack of brains, far more common was the belief that the child who did not do well in school was deficient in character….

How did educators of the latter half of the nineteenth century describe those students who did not keep up with the factory-like pace of the elementary grades and the meritocratic competition of secondary schooling? 

Zehm finds these epithets emerging in this period: born-late, sleepy-minded, wandering, overgrown, stubborn, immature, slow, dull. The religious language of condemnation used in the early nineteenth century was diminishing, but the notion that academic failure came from defects of character or disposition continued. If pupils did not learn, it was largely their own fault….

The labels educators used during the period from 1900 to 1950 indicate this shift in the way they conceptualized the “misfits” in the educational system: pupils of low I.Q., low division pupils, ne’er-do-wells, sub-z group, limited, slow learner, laggards, overage, backward, occupational student, mental deviates, backward, occupational student, mental deviates, and bluntly inferior. The message of the labels was clear: There were students who simply did not have smarts, and the pedagogical answer was to teach them different things in a different way in a different place. Older views about poor performers persisted, however, even in an era when the language of science provided a rationale for discriminating on supposedly objective grounds….

Some of the new names reformers gave to children who were not per-forming well in school began to reflect new ways of seeing. Such terms as these, emerging in the period from 1950–1980, suggested that the blame lay more with the school than with the students: the rejected, educationally handicapped, forgotten children, educationally deprived, culturally different, and pushouts. But the older habits of thought remained embedded in labels like these: socially maladjusted, terminal students, marginal children, immature learners, educationally difficult, unwilling learners, and dullards. Such language still located the cause of the trouble largely with the student, though protest groups made educators generally more euphemistic, as in names like bluebirds and less fortunate….

In each era, educators have used these labels in part to explain away failure. There has always been a reason for failure that, for the most part, has been rooted in individual or cultural deficit. The institution of schooling has won out in each of these eras. Labels have created categories of individual failure and have left school structures largely intact. These labels create a powerful argument for what might happen to the standards movement: Which students will be labeled and how?

With the standards, testing, and accountability reform movement in its fourth decade, what labels do educators use in 2020 to describe children and youth who do not meet the state and district standards set for each grade and do poorly on state and district tests?

3 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, research, school leaders, school reform policies

3 responses to “Labeling Students Then and Now (Part 1)

  1. Thank you for posting this. I’m looking forward to the next part.

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