December 19th, 2008

The Lowest Common Denominator

photo credit: paulaaa

It would seem that the unstated goal of public “education” institutions is not to help our children succeed and learn, but to make everybody feel good about their current abilities. Instead of allowing individuals with special abilities to excel and prosper in a challenging environment, they are (whether explicitly or subtly) often held back, driving the collective group of children down to the lowest possible common denominator.

Witness the example of Montgomery County, Maryland:

Officials plan to abandon a decades-old policy that sorts second-grade students, like Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches, into those who are gifted (the Star-Belly sort) and those who are not. Several other school systems in the region identify children in the same manner. But Montgomery education leaders have decided that the practice is arbitrary and unfair.

Clarifying that the advanced classes themselves will still be available to those who want to sign up, school officials point out that their only battle is with the label itself:

The gifted label is a hot potato in public education. A school that tells some students they have gifts risks dashing the academic dreams of everyone else. Any formula for identifying gifted children, no matter how sophisticated, can be condemned for those it leaves out.

The unwillingness to recognize diversity of ability and intellect is just one further arrow in the quiver of conformity that defines the very existence and purpose of such institutions. One of the many byproducts of such a politically correct maneuver is the encouragement of hypersensitivity; trying to shield children from any label or assessment only weakens them when confronted with their reality at a later time.

While the “gifted” label may or may not be the best choice of terms, though, removing it altogether is akin to saying that one child should not receive presents on his birthday because the other children do not enjoy a similar benefit at that moment. Better that all should suffer than one be exalted above the rest, right?

Even though children will only prosper in an environment that rewards hard work and incentivizes a challenging curriculum, it should be noted that the tests used to identify so-called gifted children in the public education system are hardly the best barometer of actual knowledge and ability:

The idea of measuring the progress of millions of individual students by subjecting them to standardized tests is absurd. This does not measure the progress made by the student; it measures the progress made by the system. Our schools are really factories of mass production where the object isn’t to educate and inform, but to produce a homogenous culture of non-thinking conformists and consumers. The finished product is like a fast food hamburger from McDonald’s. It’s uniformly the same no matter where you buy it from. (Charles Sullivan, via Quoty)

It just so happens, however, that administrators are always on the lookout for cheaper and easier ways of making hamburgers, thus tempting them at times to lower the standard by which children are judged. Apparently the lowest common denominator is always able to be pushed down just a little further.

19 Responses to “The Lowest Common Denominator”

  1. Jeff T.
    December 19, 2008 at 12:56 pm #

    Another excellent post!

  2. Carborendum
    December 19, 2008 at 1:44 pm #

    Here I go again trying to balance opposite sides of the equation. I’ve got my riot gear on, so if I get stoned again I may survive.

    I’m with you on the idea that schools try to dumb us down and make us all the same. (BTW have you seen Harrison Bergerom yet?) But I also believe that these “tests” are flawed.

    Since I was born speaking another language I scored in the idiot range of standardized. (There I go. I just lost ALL credibility). I was put into special education for several years. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because I spent so much time doing non-academic activities (crafts, games, socialization skills, etc.) I didn’t have the class time to learn all that everyone else did. So I fell behind.

    Despite the school’s desire to label me as “retarded”, I picked up on things. I moved up to the advanced classes in a few years.

    So, you can see why I straddle the issue here. The school “labeled” me as retarded through a flawed system/test. Yet it later allowed me to excel.

    I don’t know exactly what “gifted” is supposed to mean. We are all gifted in one way or another. We as a society seem to put a premium on certain fields of study or certain abilities.

    There was a lady in my office who was notorious for getting into other people’s business. She was always poking her head into the gossip of the office. Well, one day she got wind that I home schooled my children and that they were all extremely bright kids.

    She took it upon herself to tell me that I couldn’t possibly teach my kids properly. Having smart kids is one thing. But having a “gifted” student is quite another. They need special training . . . You can probably guess how her dissertation went on. I decided to have fun with it and timed it. She took a little over 12 minutes telling me I couldn’t teach my children properly.

    I took about 5 seconds to consider options. I decided to lie to her and tell her that she had enlightened me, so I was going to enroll my children in school the next day. She felt very relieved and walked away. I went back to work.

  3. Connor
    December 19, 2008 at 1:47 pm #

    (BTW have you seen Harrison Bergerom yet?)

    Ah, that’s what it was. I was trying to think of all the dystopian fiction I’ve read, knowing that one of them talked about this issue. Thanks for jogging my memory.

    For those who haven’t yet read it (it’s short), see here. It’s also being turned into a short film.

  4. Cameron
    December 19, 2008 at 3:35 pm #

    This might just be an argument for not grouping children by age – rather do it by ability. Then there’s no labels to worry about.

    I was in a gifted class in elementary school, and even then we had varying levels of performance. A couple of friends and I were quicker at math, so our teacher let us go ahead. When we finished the book for our grade he gave us the next grade’s book.

  5. Cameron
    December 19, 2008 at 3:53 pm #

    As an addendum to that story, my family moved before my 6th grade year, and this new school did not have a gifted program. In fact, most students were the first generation in their family to speak English, and performance wasn’t very high. I quickly became known as “the smart one”. School was boring. I aced every subject, and picked up a few bad study habits in the process.

    I then moved to a junior high which drew from many area elementary schools and enrolled in their equivalent of the gifted classes I took before. I soon realized that those other kids were smart. They had learned a lot more in sixth grade than I had. I suddenly had to study – a lot. It was a big change, and perhaps avoidable had I been pushed to learn at a pace I could handle rather than waiting for others my age.

  6. Carborendum
    December 19, 2008 at 4:05 pm #

    Harrison Bergerom

    Sorry, I misspelled it. Bergeron.

    I was talking about the 1995 movie with Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee). I believe you were talking about the 2006 movie with some unknowns.

  7. Carborendum
    December 19, 2008 at 4:27 pm #

    We might also include “The Incredibles” to the list of stories of social commentary about equalization. Each of the three versions of Bergerom are quite different. But their central items are “equalization” and “handicapping” devices.

    Notice in each case, the way to equalize is not to raise the less capable to the level of the capable, but to lower capable people to the level of the less capable. This goes for schools too.

    I just took a look at this article’s photo. All the answers are 1/2. But only the last one is correct. Yup, that about sums up public school.

  8. Carborendum
    December 19, 2008 at 4:37 pm #

    I finally followed the link for the movie you referred to. Gee, the trailer was almost the entire movie. Yes, this is a fourth version. This one follows the short story closely.

  9. Carissa
    December 19, 2008 at 7:57 pm #

    I wonder how many adults know even half the information that used to be taught about our republic to school children in the early 1800’s. Read through the Elementary Catechism on the Constitution.

  10. Clumpy
    December 20, 2008 at 2:24 am #

    While providing challenges for all students we have to be very careful to avoid reproducing existing social inequities by making rash judgments. Studies show that the parenting styles of lower-income families and the environment they’re raised in tend to provide much less cognitive stimulation, a huge factor in mental development. These kids won’t be “dumber” than other kids, but will have a huge strike against them. If we catch them in kindergarten and the early grades it isn’t hard to imagine that we can get most of them up to speed and much of this “gifted” debate will become obsolete.

    We need to hire teachers who will teach the children to think, and then hold them each to a strict standard. Too many people (even upperclassmen) at my college still haven’t developed problem solving skills and critical analysis, because they’ve always turned in superficially polished work that took them nearly no effort. And some of my school teachers were the most ignorant, closed-minded people I’ve ever met. They taught me stupid crap and dangerous habits that took me years to unlearn.

    Too many “gifted” classes are just “easier” classes where children discuss things and do goofy projects. Is it too much to ask for a class that goes beyond the superficial?

  11. Jeff T.
    December 20, 2008 at 9:17 pm #

    Somebody mentioned the “Incredibles.”

    Has anybody seen the deleted scene in the special features, with the elementary school teacher’s lecture to the students? Perfect illustration of the point of this quote.

  12. joe
    December 20, 2008 at 9:57 pm #

    “I just took a look at this article’s photo. All the answers are 1/2. But only the last one is correct. Yup, that about sums up public school.”

    I don’t see the whole sheet of paper, its possible that some other numbers and operations just outside of the field of vision could make the final answers of 1/2 correct. I guess your right, I DO find opportunities for…what did you say I do again?

  13. Carborendum
    December 21, 2008 at 4:09 pm #


    Yah, I thought of that a short while after I submitted my post. But with or without the photo, my comment is still valid.

    Teachers and administrators are now trying to do away with the grading system.

    I thought that was good.

    Then I found out that they were not trying to get a better system of measuring performance / learning, but to avoid emotional distress on the students.

    I thought that was bad.

    You didn’t really get all those answers wrong. You just found a very creative way of writing the correct numbers.

  14. Carborendum
    December 21, 2008 at 4:49 pm #

    BTW, your comment about glasses was not lost on me.


    I didn’t know you were even following that article.

  15. RoAnn
    December 22, 2008 at 7:24 am #

    Re the phot0, I bet all the answers were correct. It looks like the kind of “new math” which Washington state is finally trying to recover from. We have grandchildren in that state, and have seen the kinds of gymnastics they had to perform in their homework problems.

    Fortunately, many school districts are finally realizing that if state universities have to offer extensive remedial math to students who have come up through the “new” system,” it is time to change the system.

  16. Dara
    December 22, 2008 at 2:00 pm #

    I grew up in the “gifted” program, from first grade until I graduated high school. I never felt that we received any special privileges. Unless you count more work…

    However, it did have an effect on us socially in that none of the “regular” kids wanted to talk to us. This left me close to a very small amount of people, for a very long time. And I believe that limited me until high school when I met friends outside of classes.

  17. joe
    December 24, 2008 at 8:43 pm #

    There are other types of problems with the school system. I was a tutor for awhile working with a another tutor over a study hall. When students did not have work to do, they were to write an essay. One day the other tutor suggested the topic, “What christmas means to me” as a topic. I personally did not think that it was an appropriate topic. But didn’t press too much against it, as students could express a lot of different opinions.

    Well, one student wrote an excellent paper which didn’t take a wonderful look at christmas. He was a muslim, and thought that it was indulgent, a form of idoltry and against allah etc… While I am not a big fan of islam, I gave his paper an A plus for how well he expressed his opinion and supported it with evidence, also his excellent attention to grammar and spelling. The other tutor discounted it, and gave it a very low grade because it wasn’t what she was looking to hear. The birth of christ, santa clause, candy canes etc…She could give A’s to students who didn’t even write a complete essay, as long as it was about these things. She wasn’t willing at all to see that she wasn’t looking at the quality and effort of writing, just on if it agreed with her opinion. She was LDS. I was rather shocked that she would grade in this manner.

  18. Clumpy
    December 26, 2008 at 10:01 pm #

    One point for mentioning candy canes, one point for the crucifixion. . .

    I think I’m going to end up causing trouble for my future kids come parent/teacher conference time by saying things like “Well, as an agent of the federal government, I don’t see where your authority comes from to restrict legitimate speech. I think you might have a behavioral problem.”


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