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August 10, 2005

The War Against Excellence

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In a survey of gifted students published in 1994, a sixth-grader from New York did not mince words when asked about "cooperative learning," the educational fad that calls for students to work on assignments in groups.

"Since I always end up doing everything, even when I try to get other people to do things, it is sort of like working by myself," she said. "Except my teacher yells at me for doing everything and not giving anyone else a chance, which I did give … It also takes longer because I have to wait for everyone to catch up to me."

Her comments typify those of gifted students on the drudgery of "heterogeneous grouping" -- the practice of placing students of different ability levels together on projects so those who learn quickly can help pull up the others.

Heterogeneous grouping is a staple of cooperative learning -- one of the many educational fads that have seeped into middle-school education over the past 50 years. Cheri Pierson Yecke, former secretary of education in Virginia and commissioner of education in Minnesota, describes this movement to make all middle-school students equally mediocre in her book, "The War Against Excellence." She decries the effort to "promote social egalitarianism by coercing students who are gifted/high ability to be like everybody else" as well as the way educators tend to use middle schools as laboratories in which to conduct their perverse social experiments.

Yecke provides a history of the reform movement that began in the 1950s and has produced a body of research supporting the ideas that a) middle-school students cannot learn challenging material and b) treating students differently based on skill level is harmful. She calls this effort, spearheaded since 1973 by the National Middle School Association, unethical.

"Public schools never were meant to be the vehicle for massive social experiments aimed at achieving the questionable utopian goals of an elite few," she says.

She considers "heterogeneous grouping" merely the most destructive of these trends. Gifted students who understand the material don't find themselves challenged, and students less far along take a back seat in the project to the more gifted, whom they figure can do the work quicker and more competently. This, of course, only widens the gap, academically and socially, between the top students and the rest. Other exercises, such as peer tutoring and cooperative learning, lead to similar results.

What's worse, these "reforms" actually seem to arrest student achievement. The most-recent report on long-term reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests revealed that overall achievement among 9-year-olds has improved nine points since 1971. But middle-school students have improved just four points over that period, and high-school students haven't improved at all.

Considering that barely a third of eighth graders can read at grade level, this "progress" simply cannot be enough to satisfy students, parents or educators. And, as Yecke points out in her perceptive final chapter, "Implications for the 21st Century," it does not bode well for our future.

In the final chapter, Yecke argues that the movement's core values are un-American: "American values such as rewarding individual effort, honoring individual achievement and promoting healthy competition have given way to a capricious smorgasbord of liberal ideas that undermine traditional values in many of our schools. Beliefs driving racial equity include the leveling of achievement and the desire for equality of outcomes. This is in stark contrast with the premises underlying our nation's founding principles."

The middle-school reform movement has sabotaged America's schools, and this intellectual genocide must be stopped. By attempting to make all students equal, middle-school progressives have given all students subject to their poisonous methods something in common -- none can achieve their potential.

Jonathan Butcher is a researcher who specializes in education issues at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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