This article argues that for most of the 20th century, schools constructed multiple categories of “dissimilarity” or different abilities, and that these categories were created or soon appropriated to mean “children who cannot learn together.” Important testimonies collected over the century, but above all in the last twenty years, reveal that the school categories that favor the similarity of children, rather than their “difference”, promise to improve educational equity and educational quality in the country. The pooling of abilities has been strengthened by the argument that equal opportunity in a democracy requires that schools provide each student with access to the kind of knowledge and skills that best suit her abilities and likely adult life. To make the argument more palatable in a culture that, rhetorically at least, values ​​classless and colorblind politics, educators and policymakers have reified the categorical differences between people. Thus, in contemporary schools, there are “gifted” students, “average” students, “Title I” students, “learning-disabled” students, and so on, to justify the different accesses and opportunities students receive. Assessment and assessment technology enables schools to rank, compare, rank, and value student skills and achievements in relation to each other (as well as students from other schools, states and countries, past and present). Homogenized grouping began in earnest in the early 20th century. It corresponded to the prevailing IQ conception of intelligence, behavioral theories of learning, a model of teaching transmission and training, and the factory model of school organization. It fits the role of schools in maintaining a social and economic order in which those with power and privilege regularly pass their advantages on to their children. Homogenized grouping embodied a belief that permeated school during the 20th century: that we understand more about students when we look at their differences, and the more differences that can be identified, the better our understanding and teaching. Homogenized grouping has provided policymakers and educators with a way to “fix” a number of problems attributed to the growing diversity of students. The new immigrants needed to learn the English and American ways. Factories needed skilled workers. Urban youth needed supervision. And schools had to continue their traditional role of providing high-level knowledge to prepare some students for professions. Policy makers have defined equal educational opportunity as giving all students the opportunity to prepare for largely predetermined and admittedly different adult lives. At the same time, two phenomena shaped a uniquely American definition of democratic schooling: (1) universal schooling would give all students some access to knowledge; (2) IQ could justify differentiated access to knowledge as a hallmark of democratic equity. While most current grouping practices are not based on IQ, at least exclusively, the initial reliance on it established a pattern that continues today. Standardized achievement tests, strikingly similar to IQ tests, play an important role in dividing students into ability groups and qualifying students for compensatory education programs; Standardized language proficiency tests determine which “level” of class is appropriate for limited English learners. Along with other measures, IQ remains central to identifying gifted and intellectually disabled students.

Throughout the 20th century, compulsory education laws and the need for a high school diploma attracted more and more students to school, even those previously considered uneducable. State and local school systems have developed a number of special programs for students who, in the past, simply would not have been in school. In the 1960s, the federal government had turned to special categorical programs as the primary way to ensure education for all American students. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provided categorical funding for “out of education” students. Lau et. to the. vs. Nichols et. to the. it was brought on behalf of Chinese students in San Francisco and resulted in legislation requiring all schools to provide special assistance to their students whose native language is not English. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provided funds to classify students with physical and neurological impairments and provide these students with special education programs when it was felt they could not be placed in regular programs. Advocates of the “gifted” students were increasingly using “bell curve” logic to argue that the gifted and the cognitively impaired are like a pair of bookends, and that even those at the higher end of the curve required special support because they are so different. from “normal” students as disabled. Educators have responded in culturally predictable ways. They identified students who were “different,” diagnosed their differences as scientifically as possible, and assigned them to a category. They then grouped the students for education with others in the same category and tailored the curriculum and teaching to what each group “needs” and what the culture expects. Thus, today, educators routinely assign “normal” students to “normal” classes at different levels (eg, high, medium, slow). They put others into “special” programs for learning disabilities, behavioral issues, talent, limited English, poverty-related academic deficiencies, and more. Within homogenous groups, teachers assume that students can move hand in hand through lessons and that all class members will profit from the same instruction on the same content at the same pace. Lurking just beneath the surface of these highly rationalized practices, however, are the illusion of homogeneity, the social construction of classifications, the prevailing biases of race and social class, and self-fulfilling prophecies of opportunity and outcome.

The striking differences between students within seemingly homogeneous classes are evident and well documented. Yet for most people, the characteristics and categories by which students are sorted remain more salient than the “exceptions” that challenge those categories. Many educational constructs, including those used to categorize students, arose as highly specialized and narrowly defined technical terms or measures. However, as they make their way from research to professional journals and teacher training programs, to popular media, to the daily discourse of politicians and the public, they lose their narrow definitions and specialized uses. What might have started as specific technical concepts or as informal notions such as “at risk”, “gifted”, “high ability”, “college readiness”, “attention deficit”, “hyperactive”, “handicapped”, etc. reified and become a deeply ingrained feature of students’ identities in their own and others’ minds. African-American, Latino, and low-income students are consistently overrepresented in special education, remedial, and low-ability classes and programs. This is not surprising, given that grouping practices have grown out of the once-accepted practice of preparing students of different racial, ethnic, and social class backgrounds for their separate (and unequal) places in society. In part, placement patterns reflect differences in the learning opportunities of minority and white students that impact their preparation and achievement. But they also reflect the fact that US schools use standards of culture and language styles that are white, largely middle-class, to screen for academic ability and talent. Teachers and school psychologists sometimes mistake the language and dialect differences of Hispanic and Black students for poor language skills, conceptual misunderstandings, or even poor attitudes. An additional risk for students of color is that schools often confuse cultural differences with cognitive disabilities, especially retardation. Researchers have noted over the past 25 years that students with identical IQs but different races and social classes have been classified and treated very differently in special education placements. The misidentification issue has triggered federal and state court decisions requiring that potentially disabled students receive due process. In a far-reaching decision, the California courts ruled in Larry P. v. Wilson Riles (1979) that schools could no longer use intelligence tests to identify minority students as mentally retarded. However, substantial problems remain and new ones emerge, including recent evidence that African-American boys are disproportionately identified as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Placement in a low grade becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations, fewer opportunities, and poor academic performance. Poor performance restarts the cycle, providing further justification for schools to reduce expectations and opportunities. Extensive research makes it clear that, in every aspect of what makes up a quality education, children in lower pathways typically do less than those in higher pathways and gifted programs. Finally, grouping practices help shape students’ identity, status, and expectations for themselves. Both students and adults confuse labels like “gifted,” “honor student,” “average,” “corrective,” “learning disabled,” and “mild mental retardation” for certification of overall ability or worth. Anyone who does not have the label “gifted” has in fact the label “ungifted”. The resource room is a low-ranking place, and the students who go there are low-ranking students. The upshot of all this is that most students have unnecessarily low self-concept, and schools have low expectations. These recommendations reflect growing support for diverse groupings needed to ensure that all students have access to high-quality curriculum, teachers, and learning experiences. For example, early analyzes of disappointing US student achievement on Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) support growing concerns that low scores stem, in part, from tracking the majority of US students in less demanding math and science academically classes. Increasingly, educators and policymakers are developing the realization that schools cannot teach or achieve social justice unless they eliminate bundling practices. Numerous school desegregation cases have cited the practice as a source of ongoing racial discrimination. However, this goal will not be achieved quickly and political relationships will simply gather dust unless enlightened educators understand and act to change the norms and political relationships that these grouping practices embody. There is a long and difficult road ahead.

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