Archive for the ‘Education and Girls’ Category

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 – Thoughts on Our Educational System and the Increase in Eating Disorders

February 10, 2009

I’ve been meaning to start a blog for a long time, but where to start? I have so many thoughts and ideas about what is wrong with our current approach to education — what could be changed to help most students — here in the USA, but also in many other parts of the developed world, that I’ve become passionate about getting more people to understand what is wrong and why we need to make changes. Just this morning I watched a segment on teenage American girls on the Today Show. It talked about how in these days-when there are so many more opportunities for our brightest young women-so many of our girls are stressed, depressed, and harming themselves with cutting and eating disorders. This particular story comes from a new book called The Triple Bind by Steven Hinshaw, but I have been hearing for years that eating disorders, anorexia, for example, and “cutting” are on the rise in teenage girls. Well, I have a theory.

The loss of the old junior high school concept and the ability grouping practice of “tracking” students by tested intellectual ability play a large role in the increasing numbers of stress and lowered self-esteem in so many of our most able and promising American girls. How can this be and why did we make these changes?

In the “olden days,” the days before women’s liberation and Johnson’s Great Society, before the 1970’s, American schools typically had three reading and three math groups throughout the elementary school years, and – more importantly, they had junior high schools instead of today’s middle schools. In fact, the biggest change when middle schools were introduced was that “tracking” was largely eliminated in an attempt to “level the playing field” and give all students-girls and boys, children from different races and socio-economic backgrounds-the same education. The focus of such changes was to reduce the chances that prejudice or poverty would relegate some students to lower “tracks,” a situation many believed was behind lower achievement levels for some groups of students. More recently, as pointed out so aptly in Susan Rakow‘s book, Educating Gifted Students in Middle School, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has added to this effect and left gifted students in inappropriate classroom assignments possibly more than any other group of students.

The effect on students of all ability levels is that the whole range of students is now grouped together for the first eight to ten years of their education instead of only six to eight. Almost all classes, all lessons, and all activities are with people your own age but from an immense range of intellectual abilities. This was always hard on the brightest students who found it difficult to find classmates who really understood them or got their jokes, which is discussed in great detail in my doctoral dissertation, but the old junior high set-up gave relief early enough to save many of them. By junior high, students were grouped with others with whom they could truly compete, and while some no longer needed to wait for others to catch up – others, the slower learners, no longer felt like the ones holding up the rest of the class – and the chances to feel like you belonged finally occurred for both of these groups. Junior highs provided a two to three year period of more teacher support than high school while giving students “practice” in being more independent and moving from class to class for their different subjects.

For bright girls, elementary school is so easy that they have plenty of time to be “good students,” impress their parents and teachers with their good work and cooperation, and time left over to help the teacher, work on extra (impressive) projects, and basically run the school. They start to believe that they are what they do; people admire them because of how well they do everything. Their interpretation of their own value is that their ability to juggle so many different things at once and still get good grades is why they matter, why they are important, and why they are loved.

When junior highs were transformed into middles schools, the scaffolding affect of gradually moving to ability-grouped, tracked classes – much like a typical high school – was lost. School work is still too easy for bright girls as they move fluidly through middle school. They get no practice-no experience-with anything that is challenging or too difficult. Also lost with the middle years academic school configuration change, and less well-recognized, was student’s ability to finally be with true peers rather than just “age-mates.” Thus, the bright pubescent girl is still one of the smartest in her classes because the others who are like her are at the top of other classes in the same building but not grouped with each other for fear of having “elitist” tracking or ability grouping. Her sense that being perfect, quick, capable, and on top of an ever-growing schedule of activities, practices, and obligations is what makes her who she is … sets her up for a fall when she enters ability grouped advanced classes in 9th or 10th grade. Many such girls simply do not know what hit them!

She gradually feels herself losing ground and burning the candle at both ends just to keep up! She used to have her whole world under her control and now she seems to have lost her grip, lost that which made her so special and admired. She feels a tremendous loss of self and searches for ways to regain control, to have some say over her life, her body, and her image. The result, I believe, frequently shows itself in the mental illness of an eating disorder or other form of self-harm.

She doesn’t know how to get it all under control because she’s had no experience with intellectual struggle or competition. She didn’t need either study or organizational skills for class-work that was well below her own ability level for the past nine years. In fact, most people have no idea how different the ability levels are within a typical classroom. We call a typical classroom a “same-aged mixed-ability” configuration. A little background may help here:

David Lohman of the University of Iowa, and part of the Iowa Testing Programs, says that by 1st grade the typical same-aged mixed-ability classroom already has 12 grade equivalencies of achievement in it. Brighter children absorb more from their environments than lower ability children, so regardless of their preschool environment, brighter kids will know a great deal more than low ability children by the time they reach 1st grade. Environment is an extremely important factor in someone’s development, but it does not change whether or not someone is very bright or very slow. On the typical standardized IQ scale of 50 to 150, a child whose IQ is 120 could finish the typical elementary curriculum in about 4½ years, not six. A child whose IQ is 130 could finish it in less than three years. Above 140 needs only one year, but in most cases they are required to stay all six and go at the pace of everyone else their age. You can see how this would impact a bright girl’s sense of who she is. She spends very little of her school time with others who are like her or able to think, reason, and perform at her level. It warps her viewpoint of who she is and where she actually fits.

Basically, when we treat all children the same during their school years, we cannot possibly serve all of them well. Many unintended and unforeseen consequences occur, and I believe that our growing number of emotionally struggling teenage girls is just one sign of how our educational system has gotten off track.