Readers of TeacherTalk have come to expect me to talk about academic standards and academic achievement.  I won’t disappoint them.  I want to address what to me is one of the greatest impediments to learning in our schools - the politically correct notion that students of widely diverse abilities can be as effectively taught in one classroom than if they are grouped to address their needs.  The key word here, of course, is “effectively.”   

        Before my critics charge me with elitism, permit me to remind them that I spent the last fifteen years or so of my teaching career voluntarily teaching English to the least able students at our Kennedy High School in classes that were designed by my department to enable these students to meet the New York State requirement that all students pass the Regents examination in English.  Allow me to further observe that contrary to the beliefs of the Washington Post’s education columnist Jay Matthews, these classes offered my students readings that any educated person would recognize as important works of art.  To be sure, my approach to these works was different with these students than it was in our honors classes, but not so different as to avoid the challenging and stimulating  philosophical, ethical and political issues raised by these readings.   

       My credentials established, think about the practical consequences of the grouping taboo on too many of our classrooms.   A recent PCT survey of teaching conditions in our elementary schools revealed the astonishing fact that many of our classroom teachers have all of their students in front of them for only a fraction of the total time they are paid to teach.  In the worst example found so far, out of a possible thirty-six  periods per week that the teacher is available to teacher her class, all of her students are present for only nine of them.  There are times during the week when as many as nine of the twenty-three children in the class are pulled out at one time to be given services ranging from remedial reading to occupational therapy.  Almost forty percent of the class gone at one time!  Imagine what it must be like to be given a curriculum to teach - to have an administration and Board of Education calling for higher scores on state assessments - to have a union president calling for higher academic standards and to realize that there is no way in hell you can possibly meet all of the high expectations others have for you because you don’t even have all of your students for half of your teaching time.  In fact, you wouldn’t want to take a quiz on who belongs in your class at any given moment of the day.  

       The unfounded belief behind these pull-outs is that these children will be given the services they require and still be in class with their peers.  In the case of children classified as “special ed,” the law mandates many of these so as to make it possible for children to remain in what is referred to as the ‘mainstream.”  How mainstream is it, however, when many miss huge amounts of seat time in the mainstream class?  What is the impact on the students in the class who are not pulled out?  How does a teacher reasonably proceed with their education when anything taught will have to be repeated when those who were pulled-out return to class?  How much student boredom does this waste of time generate?  

       I would argue that the current practice of pulling out large numbers of students from heterogeneously grouped classes is a very serious obstacle to improving the performance of our schools.  If we are serious about raising the bar for all students, we need to overcome our political correctness and have the courage to seriously discuss alternatives that are ethically correct, educationally sound, alternatives grounded in the realities of the world we live in rather that the world that is the object of our desire.


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