Gas station without pumps

2011 January 30

Two memes colliding

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:15
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I have seen some bad pedagogic decisions made as a result of combining the following two ideas, each of which makes good sense by itself:

  • Teach the students you have, not the students you wish you had.
  • Don’t track students, but allow them to choose to challenge themselves.

The first meme, “teach the students you have,” makes good sense from the standpoint of educational effectiveness and efficiency.  If you pitch your classes outside the “zone of proximal development” of your students, they won’t learn much.  To get maximal learning from the class you need to adjust the pace and level of instruction of the course so that as many students as possible are stretched, but not left behind.

The second meme, “don’t track students,” makes good sense from the standpoint of social justice and not holding students back because of preconceived ideas about what they can do. Self-selection is often better than selection by teachers or counselors. Certainly I took some advantage in college of my ability to skip tedious prerequisites and get directly to material that interested me.

The problem comes when these two memes are clumsily combined, as happens too frequently.  Students may be encouraged to take advanced or AP classes, even if they lack the foundations needed to understand the contents of the course.  Having a few students flounder in a course over their heads is not a disaster, and some of them may, in fact, rise to the challenge and do well.  But if many students are encouraged to “challenge themselves” beyond the level of their preparation, the “teach-the-students-you-have” meme kicks in and the course gets watered down.  The students (now perhaps in the minority) who would have benefited from a challenging course do not get it, and may not even realize that they have been short-changed.

I’ve seen this pattern repeatedly at the university: entry-level courses getting gradually watered down until the students coming out of the course no longer are prepared for subsequent courses.  Sometimes a new course gets added after the intro course, essentially re-creating the originally designed intro course.  Unfortunately, there is only so much room in the curriculum for courses, so courses at the top end (where enrollments are smaller) often get cut in the process.  The result is a gradual downward slide of the level of education.

I don’t know if there is a simple solution to the problem, since both memes are strongly held in the education community.  Engineering faculty have sometimes held the line on “teach the students you’ve got” by insisting on the teaching the subject as specified in the curriculum and accepting high failure rates in initial classes.  Other disciplines have tried complicated placement and advising schemes to try to direct students to the appropriate level and pace of course, without notable success, as the placement tools are not very good predictors of student success.  Math has been doing this for decades and has still seen some slippage in the calculus classes.  Chemistry has tried it more recently, stretching out their 2-semester intro general chem course into three semesters, then adding another course before that.  They have a placement test for skipping the first course, but it turned out not to be very predictive of performance in the courses.

Elementary schools have embraced both memes, and insisted so strongly on the value of heterogeneous classrooms that they have closed their eyes to the inexorable slide in standards. High schools are intermediate, with some classes more advanced than others, and some prerequisites, but often little difference in the different levels of a course.  College-bound students are strongly rewarded for taking “honors” or AP classes by getting an extra point on their grades, even if the resulting mix of students pulls the class level down to an average-student level, rather than the more advanced course that the extra point on the GPA is supposed to signify.

Personally, I think that there should be some sorting of students so that most students are in classes with other students who are ready to learn about the same material at about the same pace.  Grouping students by readiness to learn specific material makes “teach the students you’ve got” work well.  If the grouping is subject-specific and frequently adjusted to match the achievement of the individual students, rather than based on some arbitrary criterion in 3rd grade (the way many “GATE” programs are set up), it does not have the negative social consequences of classical “tracking”.


  1. Gas,,,
    I think you nailed this one….. Keep up the great blogs..

    Comment by E. E. "pat" Ballew — 2011 January 30 @ 09:10 | Reply

  2. Wasn’t “Gas” Darwin’s nickname?

    Comment by Karin king — 2011 January 30 @ 15:22 | Reply

  3. I agree with sorting from early grades, but one political problem with it is that racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps are present from early grades, so sorting based on academic achievement will result in “top” classes that have fewer black, Hispanic, and poor students than students in the “bottom” classes.

    I say so be it, because the government cannot and should not try to close the various gaps. Treat people as individuals, and let the chips fall where they may. No Child Left Behind, a law passed with bipartisan support, commits the government to closing “gaps”.

    Comment by V.R. — 2011 January 30 @ 16:43 | Reply

    • I believe that closing achievement gaps by raising the level of the students on the low side of the gap is a worthy goal, but doing so by restricting the education of those on the high side of the gap is counterproductive.

      I don’t believe that “sorting” should be any sort of permanent labeling, but a flexible and frequently changed placement into the classroom (or other learning situation) where they can currently learn the best.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 January 30 @ 17:41 | Reply

      • The best “sorting” I’ve seen tracks the materials, not the students. In my daughters’ first grade class, the reading level worked the same way martial arts belts do: you were on “orange box books,” “red box books,” etc. EVERYONE’S levels changed, EVERYONE made progress, and it was clear that nothing was out of limits for any student as long as they just kept going. There was a whole different feel about it than having a “low reading group.”

        Comment by Helen — 2011 January 31 @ 12:41 | Reply

  4. Really interesting blog for thought. So many issues to straighten out. I’ve taught in a district where almost every student has two college educated parents and one where most students have parents who have never graduated from high school.
    Thanks for the thought provoking entry.

    Comment by APFiedler — 2011 January 30 @ 22:09 | Reply

    • The local school district here is decidedly mixed, with a lot of students having parents who are university professors and a lot having parents who have not finished high school and who may not speak English. I don’t know the precise mix, and it varies from school to school, but in the high school district (3 high schools), 30% of the 3500 students are “Socioeconomically Disadvantaged” on the Academic Performance Index reports and 24% are “English Learners”. At my son’s high school, the figures are 20% and 14%. The two middle schools in the district have 48% and 33% socioeconomically disadvantaged and 39% and 20% English learners (the high schools and middle schools are in the same district, but have very different boundaries, which is how you can have 3 high schools and only 2 much smaller middle schools in the same district, with very different demographics.

      The elementary school that my son went to for K–3 has 56% socioeconomically disadvantaged and 45% English learners, but also has a fairly large fraction of children of university faculty and grad students. At the private schools he went to for 4–8, almost all kids had 1–4 college-educated parents. Except for one quarter of kindergarten (when I was on sabbatical), he’s not been in a school where most students had uneducated parents, but he has certainly been in very mixed schools.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2011 January 31 @ 07:36 | Reply

  5. […] match the larger fraction of students attempting them.  This is consistent with my description of memes colliding—teachers need to teach the students they have, not the students they ought to have, so attempts […]

    Pingback by High school course title inflation « Gas station without pumps — 2011 May 16 @ 07:26 | Reply

  6. […] Two memes colliding […]

    Pingback by Blogoversary « Gas station without pumps — 2011 June 5 @ 10:51 | Reply

  7. […] Two memes colliding […]

    Pingback by Blog year in review « Gas station without pumps — 2012 January 1 @ 14:16 | Reply

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