Where Is the Middle Ground?

When Educational Either/Ors Hold Sway, Judgment Can Yield to Advocacy

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Dualistic, mutually exclusive thinking permeates precollegiate education in this country. A pervasive set of educational either/ors--ability grouping vs. cooperative learning, phonics vs. whole language, "exclusion" vs. full inclusion, and homogeneous grouping vs. heterogeneous grouping--is involved, and the potential harm both to educators and students is immense.

Teachers are asked daily by theoreticians and their supporters in professional associations and the public at large to make choices between polar opposites. They are deprived of a reflective professionalism. Each pole of their choice range is championed as a solution for an astonishing and dissimilar array of education problems. Moreover, their decision must be made between dualities in which one of the poles is politicized and ideologically framed, and where often there appears to be only one "politically correct" choice.

In essence, choice is illusory and the basis of selecting instructional strategies becomes more a matter of advocacy than of scholarship. The distinction is not without consequence. Educators, in this way, are asked to be intellectually acquiescent in the face of political and emotional deck-stacking.

Cooperative learning vs. ability grouping is a case in point. Two scholars held in considerable regard by the education-research community have characterized ability grouping in their writings as running "against our democratic ideals," in one case, and, in the other, "against our national ideology that all are created equal, and our desire to be one nation." The questioning of another's "Americanness" is clearly emotionally charged power politics and becomes even more troubling when advocates of non-ability-grouping call for the suspension of rational study. "The ability grouping of educational opportunity in a democratic society is ethically unacceptable," writes one Texas school principal in a journal for educational leaders. "We need not justify this with research," he says, "for it is a statement of principles, not of science."

When these kinds of educational dualities are examined philosophically, the poles in each case are organized somewhat consistently around differing conceptions of where meaning originates in education and what criteria are brought to bear in judging appropriate instructional format--either upon the most discrete, most differentiated unit determined by individual difference or upon the most comprehensive entity, where the needs of the whole community prevail.

For example, in the phonics/whole language dichotomy, which is really about how one best learns to read, phonics forwards the most discrete, most differentiated unit as the source of meaning. Reading is thought to be best advanced by students mastering, through skill development, sound units or phonemes. In whole language, meaning derives from a collection of sounds and words, that is, the story.

Although the term ability grouping has an array of definitions, in general, it refers to the arranging of students for instruction by ability or achievement. Cooperative learning, in the most general sense, simply means students working together on a school-selected task. Ability grouping, then, represents, more than does cooperative learning, a breaking down of a class of students into discrete units for instructional purposes based on individual difference.

The "exclusion" vs. full inclusion dichotomy also treats instructional strategy, where "exclusion" is an overarching, general term for any separation of students from a common classroom setting, while "full inclusion" seeks that all students, regardless of any particular instructional need--a learning or emotional disability, high ability, etc.--are located in one, circumscribed setting.

Finally, in the dichotomy homogeneous grouping vs. heterogeneous grouping, which is also an issue of instructional format, homogeneous grouping seeks a clustering of students for learning based upon similar intellectual ability, while heterogeneous grouping seeks a single setting for all students in which multiple levels of intellectual difference exist.

What ardent supporters of any one of these polarities demand from teachers is nothing less than an unequivocal decision about the origin of meaning in education. And this decision, when so harshly drawn through mutually exclusive concepts, confronts teachers and administrators, perhaps unwittingly, with a political choice of far-reaching consequence. They must resolve either to choose the most discrete, differentiated unit based upon individual difference as the focus of meaning, which orients them, at least in the United States, on the "right" or conservative range of the more general political spectrum, or they must choose the group or community as the basis for determining instruction, which places them on the "left" or liberal position. Implicitly, education is then politicized and, as such, confronts educators with ideologically charged opposites.

Evidence suggests, furthermore, that the poles of the dichotomies supporting the group, or "left," orientation of meaning are the most arresting in professional education circles today. A glance through the bibliography of articles in Educational Leadership, the publication of the large-membership Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, reveals an overwhelming number of articles highlighting the virtues of cooperative learning and precious few advancing ability grouping. This selective presentation is repeated in most of the educational publications available to teachers and administrators.

For precollegiate education to regain its intellectual integrity in this type of adversarial atmosphere will not be easy. But a possible route to that destination can be found in a description of the politically charged K-12 landscape that appeared last winter in the progressive public-policy journal The American Prospect. In "The New School Wars," Peter Schrag comments:

It's striking how quickly our struggles about curriculum ideas escalate into quasi-religion controversies over social or moral absolutes. The right sees a conspiracy by the federal government and its secular humanist legions to strip parents of control over their children and inculcate them with relativistic values, witchcraft, and satanism. The left looks at every parent who walks into a principal's office complaining about a book or a school assignment as a tool of religious fanatics. A generation ago people who challenged the absolute primacy of phonics were attacked in school board fights as socialists; now FairTest regards anyone too devoted to the SAT as, at the very least, an unconscious racist or sexist.

In the face of such heat, and in the absence of vigorous centrist forces speaking for parents, it's not surprising that politicians and school bureaucrats tend to capitulate easily.

Mr. Schrag pinpoints in the words "absence of vigorous centrist forces" the plight of American educators trying to help children without falling victim to diametrically opposite ideologies masked as instructional strategies. Demanding allegiance through blind faith to a particular ideology leads to the loss of perspective on what the actual instructional needs of children are. Often, an institution becomes so entrapped that it declares itself an all cooperative-learning school, an all phonics school, or an all individualized-instruction school, regardless of the variety of student needs in the population or the variety of instructional skills among teachers. In this situation, the entire community is forced to teach or learn according to a prevailing and arbitrarily imposed ideology. A one-size-fits-all position prevails.

Precollegiate educators need to re-establish with confidence the assessment of each child's academic strengths and weaknesses and the matching of those results with a variety of educational services inside and outside of school. Educators must reassert the value of individual difference in a community setting and reclaim for their profession a commonplace: that people learn at different rates, in different styles, and at different levels. And the "system" must embrace this dynamic organizationally and attitudinally.

Even in one child, rates, styles, and levels can differ from academic subject to academic subject, from day to day. This is not a value judgment; it is a matter of giving students a chance at educational progress. A child might need each of these dyadic approaches at different times in the course of his or her instruction. The proper role of the educator is to take the centrist position and assert the kind of professionalism that helps a child find an optimal match between educational need and educational service.

Despite the need for this centrist approach in education and the numerous laments about its absence, it will not be so readily established. The problem lies with centrism's becoming a "force" (much less a "vigorous force"), and its being recognized as such. The simplicity of strongly drawn dualities, the adherence to one above the other, and the comfort to educators brought by the deceptive power of one solution for all children are welcome in educational settings that are all too often characterized, regrettably, by chaos, lack of time, deprivation, and underperformance.

The only sensible response to educational malaise and the resulting miseducation of hundreds of thousands of young people is to recognize a child's varied needs and match them with a variety of appropriate instructional strategies.

Absolute compliance breeds sameness, and the application of one instructional strategy for all blankets education with an obscuring fog. In this monolithic climate, intellectual difference and individual difference are considered distasteful, denied, or crudely "resolved." When ideology is so aggressively and persistently asserted, the child is lost.

Vol. 15, Issue 05, Page 48

Published in Print: October 4, 1995, as Where Is the Middle Ground?
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