Falling Behind in Equal Education

Democracy is desirable in government. Most people would agree with that, especially in the United States. However, a democratic educational system is not as beneficial and could be harming America’s future generations.

Differentiation is a buzz word among educators and policy makers, and is garnering even more national attention. It describes an educational system that democratizes the classroom by lumping low-achieving students with advanced students, and it is being used in the vast majority of schools in the country.

The problem with this method, as a study by RAND Corporation scholars shows, is that while the lower-achieving students perform better when grouped with more advanced students, the more advanced students suffer when placed in this environment. In addition, there are more decreases in the test scores of the advanced students than there are increases in the test scores of the low-achieving students.

This problem is understandable given the government’s academic standards and requirements. The government’s policy towards education is focused on test scores and a student’s ability to remember facts that will most likely not be useful to them down the road. This is an easily quantifiable and standardized way for the government to measure student’s ability, and differentiation in turn is an easy way to make sure this goal gets accomplished. But both the objective and the means of carrying it out are ineffective.

Although the ideal is that teachers will fine-tune their curriculum to benefit both the low-achieving and the advanced students, teachers are in fact only human and most do not have the time or energy to accomplish this. And what results, because of the test scores standard, is that more advanced students are ignored because they already “get it,” and the low-achieving students receive the lion’s share of the attention.

This of course is not a bad thing. It’s wonderful that these students can receive the one-on-one attention that every student needs, but that does not mean we should essentially ignore the needs of the more advanced students. As things now stand, we are pursuing equality instead of the full potential of the nation’s children and students. Equality, just like democracy, is a good thing in some situations, even in education, but applied as an educational method it is harming the United States and its future.

The argument against differentiation is a method called tracking, which was prevalent in the ’80s and ’90s but has since fallen out of favor, in large part because of this apparent need to pursue equality in every sphere of government and life. Tracking places students in classes based upon achievement such as grades or teacher recommendations, and therefore results in advanced students being in one class while low-achieving ones are in another.

This method does have drawbacks of its own though, for example students that are in the lowest classes are often stuck at that lowest level and rarely realize any significant success. But if we want the nation’s students to achieve their highest potential, and if we want them to keep pace with other students internationally, then we might be wise to reinstate tracking, at least in some form.

The national education system could take a page from its own math program, which still uses tracking in middle schools and high schools to a large extent. A recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association found that out of 100,000 advanced students, a third of them did not maintain their advanced status over the course of their schooling. However, the one place where this was not as common was in math, where tracking is still alive in some form.

I realize that equality can be a touchy subject, and indeed in the differentiation argument it has been brought up in numerous forms, ranging from racism to class. And not to undermine these or any other issues, but what is at stake here is critically important. As students in other countries are more effectively educated, and therefore the international job market becomes smarter, not to mention more competitive, we would be wise in the United States to better equip our students to compete in this job market.

Although it is an extreme example, the story I keep coming back to is one in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers.” It details the education of Microsoft creator Bill Gates, who as a child participated in an advanced computer class through his school, which Gladwell postulates contributed to his later success.

Now granted this was at an exclusive private school and Bill Gates is, as the name implies, an outlier, but if there were only slightly similar opportunities available to more students in more schools, then the possibilities are endless.

Joel Marshall is a third-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at jbmarsha@uci.edu.