Part 2: Stuck in the Middle

Are schools evil? No. They are trying to help. All of those involved want the best for the students in their classrooms. But that doesn’t mean they are doing the right thing. 

In a typical class, your child has, they are surrounded by students who are working at various levels of ability and understanding. Despite the handful of advantages to such a range of differences, inevitable classroom dynamics will always force the teaching and learning to be geared toward the middle—not too challenging, not too easy, and not really helping anyone. 

In these circumstances, how can a teacher successfully meet every student where they are at, explain new and challenging material in a way that they need it to be explained, and prescribe personalized feedback and strategies to help them break new ground?

Many parents, then, are tempted to drive their children into advanced or gifted classes to avoid the mixed bag of students in standard classes, which works only if the student is up to the challenge and the teacher is high quality.  

In many cases, however, there is no option for any kind of enrichment and there are real logistical limits to a teacher’s ability to individualize instruction even if he or she wants to. A student can easily be lost in the churn of the one-size fits all model, reminiscent of a short story called “Harrison Bergeron” where the fastest and strongest people wore weights so that everyone would be “equal”. 

In the past few years, there has been a concerted push to eliminate classes or programs that help accelerate advanced learners. While this is almost always done with the best intentions, this initiative usually ends up slowing down the advancement of the strongest students. The students who are not advanced are also pulled down because the work the teachers must do to help the very weakest students—whether socially or academically—demands most of their attention. So, the natural instinct becomes policy. Rather than actually lift those who are struggling or satisfy those who are ahead, classes naturally become less demanding and hold students less accountable for the quality of their ideas in order to sustain the deception of success, a deception whose reality will be exposed in the not so distant high school and college years. 

Of course, this is all well-intentioned. We must help those who need help. It should go without saying. But how we help them is entirely up for debate. Everyone deserves a right to an education that fits their needs. But no one benefits from an education that fits others’ needs and not theirs. That’s not the way learning works. It’s just the only way the system has figured out how to help those who need the most help. A student in math, science, English—or any subject—should be allowed to achieve to the utmost of their potential indiscriminate to the learning needs of others. 

There are situations in our lives, as individuals or in society, where we want the absolute best person in charge. When we drive over a bridge, we really hope that engineers who designed that bridge were constantly intellectually challenged throughout their education. This is true for our child’s surgeon, our house’s architect, the designers of our digital security…the list goes on. We want the most important parts of our lives to be in the hands of those who are most skilled. We also want a society where we have an abundance of incredibly skilled people who are able to build safe bridges, perform successful surgeries, design IT infrastructures…and we desperately need an educational system that helps, or at least doesn’t hinder, this from becoming as close to reality as possible. 

The only reason a student is forced to struggle with a class that is too easy for them, or too hard, is simply because they are stuck in a system that can only handle the middle. The middle is easy for the strongest students and reflects back to them the straight-A’s they define themselves by and it is also attainable for even the weakest students, hence the system’s stubborn push towards the middle. It’s the path of least resistance. But the middle is a compromise that only serves those who settle for it, and most students don’t realize they are settling.