Labeling Students Then and Now (Part 2)

Two decades 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.”

Part 1 described the labels educators used in the 19th and 20th century for children who didn’t keep pace with the majority of other students in the age-graded school. This post includes the arguments we used to explain why these labels were used then and, perhaps, even now.

We first look at four ways educators and reformers have assigned blame for failure. We then propose a different historical explanation that locates this problem in a mismatch between students and the structure of schools and in schools’ resistance to adapting to the changing needs of their student populations. We also consider how the current standards movement might reinforce existing age-graded institutional structures.

A. Students who do poorly in school have character defects or are responsible for their own performance. [L]ocating responsibility in the individual—a response with deep roots in American ways of thinking—has been the dominant way of framing the problem. In the educational system of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this manifested itself in a focus first on character deficiencies, which reformers believed children could overcome, and later on students’ low IQs, which students were thought to have no control over. Labels like ne’er-do-well, sleepy-minded, and limited exemplify this way of thinking about students….

In the twentieth century, when the “science” of education informed professional decision making, educators leaned heavily on psychological interpretations for school failure, primarily low I.Q. and inadequate motivation. This science of individual differences led to new responses: using intelligence tests to segregate pupils into different tracks or curricula presumably adapted to their talents; altering expectations for performance and seeking to find different motivations and incentives for different kinds of pupils; and, when all else failed,eliminating misfits from the mainstream by assigning them to special classes or letting them drop out at the earliest opportunity. The belief that the school system was basically sound and the individual was defective in character, genes, or motivation has persisted….

B. Families from certain cultural backgrounds prepare children poorly for school and give them little support for achievement as they pass through the elementary and secondary grades. Some of the moral complaints against children in the nineteenth century spilled over to their parents: Parents were intemperate, ignorant, undisciplined, and unfamiliar with American values and customs. In the twentieth century, with the rise of social science, finger pointing became less moralistic. But still families were the culprit in theories that stressed the culture of poverty or the supposed cultural deficits in parents who produced seemingly unteachable children.

Some of the labels used for students in these periods have some implications for families as well; if a child was wayward or was a laggard, why didn’t the parents do anything to address these problems?

If families were to blame for the academic inadequacies of their children—and this was a popular theory—it was not entirely clear how schools could improve parents. One solution was to create in the school a counterculture that would overcome the defective socialization children received at home….

C. The structure of the school system is insufficiently differentiated to fit the range of intellectual abilities and different destinies in life of its heterogeneous student body. In the Progressive era, many reformers argued that high rates of failure stemmed from the rigidity of the standardized curriculum and rigidity of age grading and promotion in schools. They did not frontally attack the graded school per se, for it had served their purposes well for the majority of students. Rather, they argued that a single, lockstep course of studies produced failures because not all students were capable of studying the same subjects at the same rate of progress. Schools would have to adjust to accommodate the low-division pupils, sub-z group, and occupational students.

This interpretation of failure obviously was closely related to the first—the explanation of failure in terms of individual deficits. It focused, however, on institutional changes that would leave intact the basic system of age-graded schools while finding places where the“laggards” could proceed at a slower pace and often in a different direction from the “normal” students. The remedy, then, was a differentiation of curriculum, grouping, and methods of teaching. This search for organizational causes and solutions led to ability grouping in elementary schools and to specialized curricular tracks in high schools, coupled with an apparatus of testing and counseling….

D.Children often fail academically because the culture of the school is sodifferent from the cultural backgrounds of the communities they serve. This interpretation places the responsibility for school failure not on culturally different families and individuals but rather on the schools themselves, arguing that it is the schools, not the clients, that should adapt to social diversity and the forgotten children, culturally different, and pushouts….

The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s heightened aware-ness of the multicultural character of American society and the culturally monochromatic environment of most schools. In this view, the standardized age-graded school was insensitive to low-income ethnic and racial minorities and largely unconsciously embodied the dominant ethos of middle-class, White, Anglo-Saxon values, attitudes, and behavior. Intent on imposing~through teachers, curriculum, and daily routines–mainstream culture on the children, such schools displayed little respect for differences in language, beliefs, and customs. In this view, teachers were often unconscious of the ways in which they served as agents of a rigid cultural system geared to standardizing their pupils. Constantly correcting non-mainstream children’s speech, as if to say that there was only one acceptable way to speak in any situation, is one example of this rigidity. The teachers unwittingly became active agents in creating student failure. As a result classrooms became cultural battlegrounds in which teachers communicated lower expectations, failed to connect with their culturally different students, and thus contributed to low academic performance and high dropout rates. The analysis of cultural bias and rigidity led to solutions that focused largely on making the curriculum more multicultural, increasing the cultural sensitivity and knowledge of teachers, and building school programs around values that reflected those o fsurrounding ethnic communities….

The standards movement departs from these previous explanations in the way it frames students and performance, but not in the solutions it offers students who do not fit its structures. Note that almost all of these previous problem definitions and the solutions they generated left the core structure and assumptions of the institution—in particular the age-graded school as the chief building block—basically untouched…

The pedagogical assumptions and practices embedded in the urban age-graded school—the scheduling of time, the segmentation of the curriculum, grouping according to notions of “ability,” annual promotions, elaborate bureaucratic structures of control, and views of learning, teaching, and knowledge—remained largely unquestioned throughout the century. There were consequently not many options for solutions outside this structure. We see a continuation of this today with standards-based reforms focused on requiring low-performing students to do more during the school year and during the summer or repeat a year of school rather than questioning why these students are failing and what structures in their schooling lead to failure. The standards movement, admirable in its goal of raising the bar for the entire educational system, must ask how it can ensure that this mismatch does not continue to let success elude large groups of students, many of whom live in impoverished urban and rural districts. The focus must be on what happens to the students who do not fit the mainstream academic mold and how school structures can change to meet their needs.

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

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