Everything new is old again. So is the case in certain American schools, which are overturning sacred modern educational ideology by re-instituting special classes for below-average students. In “Holding Back Young Students: Is Program a Gift or a Stigma?“, Winnie Hu briefly reports on this trend and shows how it is igniting a firestorm among educators who have long rejected the traditional idea that students should be, in some cases and in certain subjects, educated according to their intellectual level. Here’s the current scene:
With the increasing emphasis on standardized testing over the past decade, large urban school systems have famously declared an end to so-called social promotion among youngsters lacking basic skills. Last year, New York flunked 6 percent of its first graders, and Chicago 7.7 percent.
Now the 8,400-student East Ramapo school district in this verdant stretch west of the Palisades is going further, having revived a controversial retention practice widely denounced in the 1980s to not only hold back nearly 12 percent of its first graders this spring but to segregate them in a separate classroom come fall.
Predictably, Hu blames this situation on the Left Behind Act, favorite whipping boy of many education professionals:
[W]ith the federal No Child Left Behind law and a battery of state mandates increasing pressure on schools to raise test scores, efforts to end the longtime practice of promoting children based on age rather than achievement have taken on new urgency. Districts in Milford, Del., and Lakeland, Fla., are among a handful nationwide that have been experimenting with transition classes in recent years, though both dropped them in the face of parental resistance and, in Florida, concerns among teachers.
Hu provides a very telling quote that reveals why so many contemporary teachers and educators buck against the more traditional system:
“I had a hard time putting just the low-achieving kids together,” said Betty Fitzgerald, principal of Lakeland’s Churchwell Elementary, which ran a separate class for repeating third graders for two years in response to tougher state standards. “It’s like saying, ‘You all are low kids, and you all didn’t pass.’ ”
Here’s the central problem, then: self-esteem. It’s not so much the bottom line–in this case, what students actually learn–but what students feel that drives the ideology of many contemporary educators and teachers. Now, I’m by no means in a hurry to put students in situations where they feel bad, but my first concern for students is not that they feel good, but that they learn. Funny how our system sometimes loses sight of this aim, which I believe it is intended, funded, and tasked to fulfill.
In the process of education, one often feels bad. I’ve always felt bad when I didn’t do well in school. To this day, I hate getting bad grades. It’s unpleasant, furthermore, to have to work hard on difficult subjects. I’ve currently got a ton of books to read for a PhD class. Is that pleasant in the same way that, say, a basketball game is? No sir. Definitely not. But is the process of reading multiple books on an academic topic hugely helpful to me? Absolutely. Were other self-esteem challenging, character-building educational exercises of similar help to my mind and heart? They certainly were. If difficult educational tasks are navigated with care and support from parents and teachers, great rewards will be reaped by many students (though in today’s massive schools, one can understand how teachers and educators would struggle to provide the help many challenged students need–are many of our public schools, perhaps, far too large for their own good?)
Will today’s students reap similar benefits, or will they suffer from a system that often seems to care more about their feelings than their minds?
You tell me.