Episode 19: Separate But Unequal

by Mar 4, 2020

Welcome to Education and Technology Futures, a videocast that highlights interesting trends and connections in the worlds of education, technology, and culture.

In this episode, Rob the fact that, in spite of our good intentions, through our attempts to group students by performance level or skill, we may unwittingly create one more education scenario of separate by unequal.

Full Transcript

Full Transcript

Have you ever noticed how much we like to group things that are alike? Or, to put it a different way, have you ever noticed how we don’t like to mix things that aren’t alike.

Heck, there’s even a famous Sesame Street song to help us learn which things in a group don’t belong.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Affinity groups and identifying things that match or don’t belong is an important part of human life. The challenge occurs when we group things that are alike to the disadvantage of others or ourselves.

We have a number of examples of this detrimental grouping in education.

We know that forced grouping or segregation by skin color is really bad. And we’re certainly aware that deliberate grouping by socioeconomic levels leads to gross inequity. It can also be problematic to separate learners too strictly by skill specialization or performance.

We’ve learned that these types of groupings, especially when forced artificially, can prevent cross-sharing of behaviors and strengths, reduce needed system diversity and, most important, lead to groups that are separate but not equal.

Of course, these are just a few obvious examples and, not surprisingly, most of them are associated with attempts to actually improve the quality of education for one or more affinity groups. Unfortunately, too many times these good intentions result in scenarios that promote inequality.

It reminds me of the time, way back when, that I spent a semester teaching at Yale University. When I returned to Texas to complete my graduate studies, people asked me, “What were the students like?” And I would tell them that the only real difference is that the students at Yale all belonged to a much narrower spectrum of achievement than the students at most universities. “Everyone’s an overachiever,” I would tell people. “They’re not any smarter, just part of a refined unnatural selection process.”

Now, it’s one thing if a private university wants to do this, but the practice can be insidiously subtle with undesirable outcomes when applied in our schools. Take the latest scores by U.S. students on the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. As has been the case in prior years, U.S. student scores were relatively stagnant and ranked in the middle of the 79 participating nations.

What was somewhat unexpected is that researchers are finding patterns of growing inequality in the scores. Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) points out that the exam results are showing a widening achievement gap between high- and low-performing students, with the vast majority of educational inequality occurring inside each school. 

The cause?

Well, one theory is that the main culprit is “tracking” or separating more advanced students into more challenging classes. This elevates and separates one group of students while depriving the other of advanced instruction and resources, as well as the positive influence of working with higher-achieving peers.

In other words, in our desire to promote high-performing students, we may have unwittingly created another education scenario of separate by unequal.

It’s something to think about.

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