Recent changes in education programs in Virginia and the recommendations from national studies have triggered strong reactions, many of them predictable. At the national level, the serious problems bedeviling our schools are lost sight of in the politicizing of "the education issue"--as if there were only one. But since we can do little to prevent national foolishness until after the 1984 elections, we may be wise to focus instead on the significance of reactions to newly approved state and county programs.
One frequent objection--first to Fairfax County's extended gifted and talented program and then to Virginia's new advanced studies curriculum--has been that they are elitist. It is charged that terrible damage will be done to the many students not placed in the accelerated or advanced studies programs, to those students who are labeled "not superior." Offered in the name of equality, these charges can result in continued low standards or limited opportunities for gifted students. Presumably, though, everyone feels good being the same as everyone else.
But everyone does not feel good because few (mostly parents) are really fooled by this policy of "sameness." Human needs being what they are, many want to believe that no one is intellectually superior to anyone else, and therein lies the evil of the "sameness" policy. Those who voice the charge of elitism and resist grouping students by ability are fooling themselves in three important ways.
First, they fool themselves if they believe that by not grouping we can protect average and below-average students from an accurate perception of their academic abilities. The classroom does not exist in which weak students are unaware of the differences between themselves and better students.
For 14 years I have watched the behavior of students in the community college's characteristically heterogeneous classes. If the two or three strong students in a class are aggressive, their frequent participation is met with groans by the average student; but if the good students are personable, not pushy, the average student quickly defers to them for the "right" answers and appoints them leaders of group projects. The weakest students refuse to participate at all. Their eyes lowered to the book in front of them, they sit in stony silence, waiting for me to select the next victim. All of these students know exactly where they fit in the academic order. No pretense on the part of the teacher or administration can erase their knowledge.
Second, those complaining of elitism fool themselves if they believe we can encourage academic excellence while executing a policy of intellectual equality. Parenting manuals repeatedly stress the power of example. Our actions expose our values, whatever we may say to the contrary. In our schools, these same principles apply. No matter how loudly we assert the importance of academic achievement, in many high schools alert students quickly learn that the path to recognition--to awards from adults and attention from fellow students --can be found on the basketball court, in the band or as editor of the newspaper. If we are unwilling to distinguish academically superior from average students in the same way that we distinguish varsity from junior varsity football squads, then bright students eager for recognition and a sense of identity must inevitably channel their energies to extracurricular activities.
Finally, and most important, a policy of intellectual equality perpetuates a distorted perception of human personality. Many who object to recognizing and rewarding academic excellence apparently hold the belief, consciously or otherwise, that special skills --for example, in sports or music--are somehow separate from personal identity, but that intellectual ability is at the core of personality. It follows from this belief that to protect each student's self image, we must pretend that all are intellectually equal. One spin-off from this--defended vigorously by my composition students--is the notion that students should be graded on effort, not ability. But these same students and their parents would not want Coach Joe Gibbs selecting Redskins on effort alone. (What finally matters is not how motivated Dave Butz is; what matters is how well effort is combined with ability to tackle.)
When we foolishly argue that effort, not demonstrated skill, should be important in the measuring of academic ability, we lose sight of the facts. We forget that writing, or any intellectual activity, is a skill to be learned, and not all will learn at the same rate or achieve equal proficiency. And we forget that youngsters--and adults--must be cherished for their total selves, for each one's special blend of gifts, interests and abilities. Not every tennis player can compete at Wimbledon. Not every high school student can go to Harvard. But that's all right, so long as we recognize and value human differences and understand that people express and shape their personalities in many ways.
Our schools can best serve our students by providing the greatest possible diversity of learning opportunities and challenging all youngsters to develop to their fullest. We should want our schools to be like the perfect parent: accepting and valuing each child while scheduling piano lessons for one, buying a home computer for another and rising at dawn to take the third to swim team lessons. All three children must be taught to read, to write, to manipulate mathematical symbols, to understand their history and culture. But the three are not equally skilled academically, musically or athletically. Each one is different; each one is special.