Starting school already behind

Underprivileged students start first grade already two grade levels behind more privileged students. The obvious solution to this discrepancy is to give the underprivileged kids more time, as in another year at the beginning of primary school. That would appear to some to be grade retention (which some do not like), and it would also cost more (which others don’t like), because the underprivileged students would be getting the extra year in school they need.

But, politics intervenes, from all sides. Radical egalitarians, currently a dominant philosophical force in our schools of education, say grade retention is wrong and does not work (ignoring the fact that it works quite well in other countries where mastery is emphasized), and would be happy to deliberately hold the advanced students back until the underprivileged students can catch up. Self-titled education reformers put all responsibility on the teachers–“the single greatest school-based influence on education achievement” (if you count students as not “a school-based factor”). Neither approach is realistic or fair.

There are some impediments to practical education solutions for which both the polar sides in education debates are responsible. But, because the press and policy-makers rarely talk to anyone in the no-man’s-land in between the opposing vested interest groups, they rarely consider the obvious and the practical.

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3 Responses to Starting school already behind

  1. Wayne Bishop says:

    Our ridiculous level of grade level placement:
    at the beginning of the year, age – 5 = grade-level
    guarantees that any form of honest standards-based curricular development is doomed before it is ever implemented. Moreover, only a very talented teacher can conduct a productive classroom environment where each student is making the appropriate progress during the year. In an effort to be egalitarian, we wind up denying appropriate remediation to those who cannot progress without it and we limit the progress of those who should be working far ahead. Or, as in my own children’s case, drive them to a private school or well-run homeschool/co-op situation where they will be properly challenged. In our case, both boys made the already strong private school academically even stronger and Pasadena Unified worse. The hardest moral decision of my life but of life-long importance to my children.

  2. The proposals by Comenius try to solve this problem, he proposed to make work together priviledged and unpriviledged students, this certainly needs a good amount of effort on solidarity among students and families. Segregation implies separation between “kinds” of people, very good students may grow despite teachers or segregation and collaboration with unpriviledged students will provide them some other values and sensibility, but it is clear that for the other students segregation will not work in a positive way.
    Nice discussion!
    My regards Richard!

    • Hello Agustin. I think it unfair to label separation by achievement level segregation, at least with the connotation the word “segregation” has in the United States. We would not place kindergarteners in a university calculus class, but not primarily because we wish to segregate two groups from each other. Mixing students of any demographic category is fine but, at some point, combining widely disparate levels of knowledge and skill hurts everyone–no teacher can effectively differentiate instruction across all differences in background knowledge; students very far behind others in a class will become lost and discouraged; and students very far ahead of others in a class will be bored. Better, I believe, to have the underprivileged children join the privileged children when they are on more of an equal footing, even if it means they are a year older in age. RP

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