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Personal Heroism Is Not Good Social Policy

Personal Heroism Is Not Good Social Policy

MDC Senior Fellow Joan Lipsitz was a junior high school teacher in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro (N.C.) school system in the 1970s before leaving the classroom for a career in research and philanthropy focusing on school improvement and youth development. Drawing on her experience, she had these thoughts about a new study that found that teachers are once again grouping students by ability and not integrating them within the classroom.

In the early 1970s, we could not have ability grouping in Chapel Hill, N.C., because the U.S. Office of Civil Rights conducted head counts within classrooms to assure that we were not only desegregated but integrated in our schools. I was teaching ninth grade English in what was then a junior high school. When I asked my master teacher how to teach such dramatically diverse kids (children of farmers, children of janitors, children of professors, etc.) at the same time in the same classroom, she said, “Damned if I know.” That was the total amount of professional development I received.

So, I did what secondary teachers are loathe to do and went to an elementary school to learn how they were doing it because at the time they had no ability grouping. I used them as my model and individualized instruction. I had 120 students, with individual files for each one on writing skills, reading skills, reading interests, vocabulary, spelling errors, syntax errors, grammatical shortcomings, etc.  I was absolutely heroic—and I lasted three years.  This is why I say that relying on personal heroism is not good social policy.  

This is an extremely difficult issue. The research, last time I looked at it, which was years ago, shows that in classes of fewer than 15 students, teachers achieve significant success. That makes sense to me, because the teachers don't need to stay up until 3 a.m. surrounded by folders (or now glued to the computer), preparing individual lessons and tracking progress along key dimensions. I came to believe that the issue was school organization. Schools organize children not for nefarious reasons (with shocking exceptions, of course) but to be as efficient as possible so the adults can achieve the schools’ goals and still have personal lives. If I as a ninth grade teacher have 120 students, that is an organizational decision that determines a series of ensuing decisions about what ordinary people can achieve within a given school budget. Budget determines class size, length of school day, number of school days, and a whole cascading series of decisions that determines who goes into teaching, who stays in teaching, and who succeeds in teaching.

Schools have a remarkable history of regressing to the mean. Ability grouping is the mean. It is an organizational decision that makes sense within the school. And don't forget that when we moved away from the mean, many middle-class parents withdrew their kids from the schools. There was little support for maintaining the organizational decision that was absolutely right and required heroism. Where was the payoff? And what policies do we recommend in order to establish a payoff?