From the Blog

The (Unsurprising) Persistence of Segregation in Schools

by Dan Liebert 

Given the abundance of research that shows the damaging effects of long-term ability level segregation in schools (e.g., Integrating Classrooms and Reducing Academic Tracking), what could possibly account for its continued persistence? My experience in schools over the last 35 years has led me to conclude that this segregation is baked into the very fabric of education in America. As educators respond to the pandemic, perhaps we have an opportunity to end this segregation in a post-pandemic world.

In Disruption, We Find Opportunity to Change

The current, widespread, and systemic disruption of our daily routines has caused all of us in public education to struggle with some of the fundamental practices that have governed secondary school operations, such as: scheduling, grading, standardized assessment, technology access, and “grouping” of students. Our previous practices are often inadequate to address the new hybrid and remote situations schools find themselves in. Why not take this time to question, rethink, and reimagine how things could be different? Not just different, but also better.

I have been in hundreds of secondary schools in my career as a teacher, administrator, and school coach. One of the most common aspects of secondary (and some elementary) schools that I have seen is segregation. In almost all the schools in which I worked, there was some system segregating students based on unjust assessments of ability level. “Ability” is often considered a fixed trait. There are, so goes the theory, “high”, “average,” and “low” ability students. Sorting as such requires that we separate standards, expectations, and learning for each level. Long-term ability level segregation is commonly called “leveling” in order to soften what is actually happening. More often than not, those deemed “low ability” are disproportionately students of color, students with low socio-economic status, and students with disabilities.

There is a saying, sometimes attributed to Edwards Deming: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” This holds true of our schools

The Inevitable Grip of History

To Thomas Jefferson’s credit, the roots of our public education system come from a philosophical and practical point of view that a country can’t be both ignorant and free. Also to his credit, Jefferson began to create and organize a system of public education that would permeate the newly created states.

At the same time, Jefferson never believed that poor people, women, or Africans enslaved on his plantation could benefit from the system of education he envisioned—let alone be included in it. In his vision, poor white boys would be given six years of grammar school education, then the segregation based on ability would begin. After grammar school, the “best geniuses” from each school would be selected to continue another six years, while the rest would be “dismissed.” In Jefferson’s own words, “By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expense, so far as the grammar schools go.”

In other words, Jefferson held two perspectives simultaneously: yes, he valued public education and its impact on democracy; he also believed in segregation based on ability. That segregation was literally built into the public education system at its conception. I believe it’s long past time to end the practice. Now is the perfect opportunity.

Turning a Blind Eye to Injustice

Jefferson penned “all men are created equal” while at the same time owning, torturing, and raping his human property. Is it really a surprise, then, that he proclaimed, in soaring rhetoric, the value of equality, democracy, and public education while also believing these rights and opportunities should be denied to certain groups? Or that a system founded on these beliefs still reflects them?

It is my experience that, starting in about the 4th grade, usually with a math test, American schools begin segregating their students. The“bright” math students are segregated from the “average,” who are in turn segregated from those deemed to have “low ability.” Students are then further segregated according to their performance in other subjects, such as reading, health and physical education, and even music. So many learning opportunities are lost along the way. For example, “lower ability” students who are deemed to need more math and reading may be denied the opportunity, if only as a matter of “scheduling,” from participating in band or orchestra. What a shame that these classes were scheduled at the same time.

Short-Term Grouping vs. Long-Term Segregation

I was once in a meeting with school counselors discussing why ability level segregation persists, especially in a proficiency-based system where all students work on the same set of learning outcomes. Why then do we segregate our students? The answer was both deeply upsetting and also not surprising at all. Because some parents don’t want their children in with the “riffraff.”

“Riffraff” isn’t far off from “rubbish.” It feels like Jefferson’s point of view is alive and well in our schools. Segregation persists because we have yet to muster the courage required to change a system originally designed to segregate. Yes, the system we have now is dramatically different from what existed in the 18th and 19th centuries; however, the damaging attitudes and assumptions about ability persist.

Of course, there are situations where short-term segregation based on performance or interest makes sense. There are times, particularly in later high school years, where it makes sense to group students for the short term based on choice, passion, or interest in diving deeply into a specific topic or course, or for the purposes of intervention. For example, differences in math performance might require tailoring (or “personalizing”) interventions for students not yet showing evidence of achieving standards. However, short-term grouping is not the same as long-term segregation.

When segregation (or “batching”) starts in math in elementary school, that batching is often by a whole cohort, not by the short-term individualized needs of students. When the system only batches by cohort, the unintended consequence is that segregation then proceeds for multiple content areas and multiple years. The effect of such segregation is clear. It hardens fixed mindsets about intelligence, and also justifies giving some students high-quality and personalized instruction while others get a rote education. Segregation also gives the false impression that all of this is perfectly okay, since it’s part of the system.

Do our public systems really belong to a few and not to everyone? History suggests as much. Citizenship, voting, equality, health care, education—these ideas, systems, and principles, inextricably linked to the American dream, have always been reserved for certain people. White people, straight people, those who were born here, and those just deemed to be “smart.” All the other “riffraff” have been “dismissed.”

Finding the Courage to Change

I think the vast majority of teachers care about their students and believe deeply in Jefferson’s point of view that students need education to participate in democracy, to get and keep employment, and to live a life infused with the joy of learning. I think many educators simultaneously believe that some kids “have it” and some kids don’t. My experience tells me that we are living with a set of beliefs that perpetuates a system of segregation that needs to end. It has needed to end for a long time now.

Can we question, rethink, and reimagine how things could be different as we restructure our schools for a post-pandemic world? What if the practice of long-term ability level segregation is relegated to history along with the pandemic? Our focus could shift from spending time and energy trying to identify and segregate the “high” from the “low” ability students, and focus instead on the quality of the learning rather than perceived characteristics of the learner. If a student is not yet showing evidence of critical and higher-order thinking, we must dare to ask: What must we do as teachers, educators, or professionals to help that student achieve?

Such change is not uncharted. There are tried and tested strategies: personalized and proficiency-based learning, measuring progress through our school systems based on achieved competencies rather than test scores and seat time, a focus on the Indicators of Educational Equity, promoting the Elements of Effective Instruction, and creating professional learning groups where teachers can grapple with how to maximize the abilities of all students rather than dealing with the logistics of maintaining and scheduling segregation.

Together, we can unleash a flood of creativity, energy, and enthusiasm for building an education system that is rooted in equity, not segregation.