Friday, April 30, 2010


I subscribe pretty strongly to the labeling theory in psychology. The basic premise of the theory is that human beings in general, and children specifically, will, with enough time and repetition, take on the character attributes that other people assign to them. If you call a child a bad boy or a bad girl long enough, they will become one. If you call someone shy, you make them more so. If you treat a child as though they are smart, they will think they are, and work to live up to the label. And vice versa. If you call a child slow or say they are behind or "low achieving", that's a label that will stick.

Of course labeling theory doesn't explain all human behavior. There are certainly examples that people could cite as proof that it fails. People who defied the labels they were given, in either direction. Becoming wildly successful after being labeled a problem child. Or failing miserably in school after being labeled a genius. But, in all honesty, I'd argue that those examples are more exceptions to the rule, not basis for the lack of general applicability of it.

The labeling theory, and my fairly strong belief that it is real, is the root of my problem with the most recent decision by the administrators at the school the kids go to. They are evaluating the children, from first grade on, determining where they fall in a range of achievement, and placing them in classes next year according to that evaluation. One of the main arguments for doing this is that it is too hard for the teachers to teach a wide range of ability levels. Sorry, I don't buy that as a legitimate reason for what they are doing here.

They say the classes will be mixed by ability levels to some degree. But, the high achieving children will not be placed with the low achieving ones. It's not going to be hard to figure out which class is which. And it isn't just the parents that will be able to figure it out. The kids will too.

I don't have any problems what so ever with stratifying instruction, tailoring it to the needs and abilities of the children. I don't even have issues with full time gifted and talented programs. I was a product of a district wide full time GT program. I don't have any problems with the children who are behind having more assistance to get them to grade level. I do have a problem, though, with grouping children as young as 5 and 6 year olds according to some ability measure, particularly when that ability level is being determined by what is most assuredly a flawed evaluation instrument. Not to mention the fact that some children, sometimes highly intelligent children, don't "click" with reading until near the end of first grade. Before even giving them a chance to excel though, the school seeks to categorize them.

And I have even more trouble with putting those children into classes on the basis of those evaluations when the teachers being assigned to the classes aren't necessarily being given any additional training for GT children, or below grade level children. I have issues with the "what to do with all the special needs/English language learners/behavior problems". Are those children all going to be grouped into the lower achieving class? By conventional assessments, that is where they would go for the most part. Is that fair to them? To their classmates? To the kids in the other classes, who will miss out on all the interactions with those children? I'd argue that it is not.

I also take fault in the manner the kids will be assessed. If you have a child who is exceptional in some subjects, but only average in others, which wins out? Where does that child go? What about the kids who have no attention span for standardized testing, but can blow you away by their grasp of concepts? Where do they go?

None of the concerns I have mentioned above come even close though to my main concern. My biggest fear is that the kids will figure this all out. That they will know that there are people out there seeking to pigeonhole them in elementary school. Categorize them. Label them. Make judgements about who is more intelligent. And who is not.

This isn't high school or middle school even. This is not a college preparatory academy. This is not a private school. This is not a magnet school. This isn't even among the highest achieving schools in the district anymore, though it used to be. This is an elementary school. These are children, young children. They are there to be taught and to learn. Not to be judged and grouped and labeled.

Ideally, of course, the teachers would be given the training and resources, and have the ability to teach to a wide range of kids. In my perfect world, the kids would be grouped at higher grade levels (3-5th) by subject, to allow for kids to learn at an appropriate pace for them. But it would be subject specific, not generalized. If there is truly enough need at the school for a full time GT class, then there should be one, taught by someone with expertise in the area.

What they are doing, and how they are doing it, though, is nothing like that. But then again, they didn't ask me.

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