The Bell Curve

Education is a field that seems especially prone to ideological movements, trends and even fads. Sometimes these swings are substantive, and reflect well thought out pedagogical philosophies. Other times they are more political, with educational arguments mirroring the style and substance of familiar debates between conservative and progressive thinkers in other domains. Still other times, a fad is just a fad, and a particular idea, strategy or slogan seems to gain traction and take on a life of its own.

In recent years I have noticed that the phrase, “All children can learn,” has become a bullet point in just about every educational presentation I have attended. The phrase actually originates from an important academic debate that happened over forty years ago. In 1966 James Coleman, a leading education researcher at the time, wrote a report on the equality in the American educational system that concluded, among other things, that socioeconomic status was the main factor in determining student success in school, essentially saying that public education didn’t make a difference. Ronald Edmonds, the director of the Center for Urban Studies at Harvard at the time, responded with arguments and data to show that effective schools could help students learn and succeed regardless of their background and socio-economic status. His perspective was subsequently summed up with the reductive catch phrase, “All children can learn”.

Unfortunately, without its original context, the phrase has lost much of its meaning, and through overuse it has become more or less a platitude. In the context of the reform movement in the last few decades, it has been used as a way to indict educators for the persistence of the achievement gap, and as cover for the ridiculous performance targets of NCLB, in particular the notion that all children were expected to reach the target of “proficient” on standardized tests by 2014. In that context, “All children can learn,” has come to mean that all children have the same potential for academic success.

This is a particularly troublesome notion, especially for anyone who has actually been in a classroom of 20 or 30+ students at any given grade level. While I accept and embrace the notion that all children can and should make significant growth in their learning throughout the year, that is very different than saying that they all can or should hit the same performance goals over that same period of time.

Coming from a background in biology, I know that variability is a given in any group of organisms, and humans are no exception. Some of our variability is based in genetics, and some in environmental factors. How much of our intelligence is based in our genetics vs. our environment is not a settled question, but it is widely accepted that there is a wide range in human intelligences, for whatever the reason. As with the random outputs of any complex system, the distribution of human intelligence (however it is measured) tends to spread out along the bell curve, with the bulk of us somewhere in the center, and outliers spreading out to lower levels at both ends. Statistics for human height across the globe spread out in the same way.

My point is that people, and therefore children, are a diverse group of individuals with unique strengths and weaknesses. Setting an arbitrary goal for all kids in a given age group is harmful in many ways. For some kids, school is easy, and they pick up math and reading with little effort, regardless of their background or the skill of their teacher. For them, earning the “proficient” label may require little or no effort at all. For others, all the support in the world is not enough for them to keep up with grade level expectations, and they are set up to see themselves as failures time and time again, regardless of their effort. Spend an hour in just about any classroom and it is easy to observe these dynamics.

This is not to say that teachers should be taken off the hook for helping students to learn and grow academically. On the contrary, I am saying that we should be clear in stating that it is the responsibility of the classroom teacher to move all kids forward as much as possible, regardless of where they fall on that bell curve. Instead of trying to shift the lower end of the curve to the center, we should expect our teachers to move the whole curve over to higher levels of achievement. That means we need to be diligent in assessing our kids meaningfully, setting appropriately challenging goals for each student, and then differentiating the curriculum so that all students are doing work that is meaningful and appropriate to their starting point and their learning goals.

Like it or not, the bell curve is here to stay. It is not a philosophy or a fad, but a law of nature in any highly complex system. Some our students will be stronger than average in any particular area of the curriculum, and others will be weaker than average. Instead of arbitrarily assigning a goal that everyone is expected to meet, let’s work towards building an educational system where no student is set up for failure, and no student is let off the hook. By focusing on the growth of every individual instead of relying on an assembly line approach, we can make the phrase, “All children can learn,” mean something real again.


About maestromitch

I have been teaching in California schools, both public and private, for the last 15 years. I started to blog as an attempt to further the conversation about the state of our public school system, and to make the case for a more balanced and rational approach to educating our children.
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2 Responses to The Bell Curve

  1. Doliene Slater says:

    Stolen from Daphne Kollher’s TED Talk – who borrowed it from Plutarch.
    “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”
    If you start there, voila, all children can learn!
    Great post – from Mom!

  2. janet lowy says:

    Spot on! Thank you for putting into words feelings I’ve had for a long time. I really enjoy reading what you write and look forward to your next installment. Janet Lowy

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