August 10, 2005
By Jonathan Butcher
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
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
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
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).
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.
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