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”.