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One Size Doesn't Fit All, Part Two: How Compulsory Mainstreaming Fails Our Children

Our educational system lets down students falling behind—and striding ahead.

To read part one of this article, click here.

Any educational system that tries to meet the needs of all children in a single setting misses the mark for many of the students it is so desperately trying to serve. No one wants their child at the bottom academically — and yet placement in this type of setting is the most efficient way for them to catch up. Conversely, everyone wants their child to be in the top group — and yet by definition only a percentage of children can be ahead of the bell curve in any particular subject. To right our educational system we must step away from policies that over-emphasize mainstreaming to the exclusion of more individualized decisions.

All Generalizations Are False ...

As a society, we want to identify children who have the potential to innovate, to master topics in ways most of us will never imagine. If a child is several years ahead in math, we need to find ways to supplement their learning and push them to meet their potential. If their day-to-day classroom material remains unaltered, they are being asked to do over and over again work they have already mastered. So for these children to thrive, to foster talents and cultivate academic excitement, some academic option has to exist that meets them where they are.

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When school budgets are cut, one of the first things to go are enrichment and honors programs. Children ahead of the academic curve spend their days treading water, having mastered much of the mainstream material. They may be directed to read quietly on their own or to read to peers, neither of which do much to further their education. Interest wanes and they aren't inspired to engage in academics when nothing seems challenging.

How would you handle another year of basic training in your field? Dr. Bertin, for the next nine months we'd like you to spend six hours a day in Medical School 101 ... again. Without a policy that identifies these children and launches them forward, our system drops the ball. We leave children in a second-grade curriculum even when abilities are at a fourth-grade level. What does that do for motivation? What does it do to for the intellectual future of our country when the gifted and talented receive no specialized attention at all?

... Including This One

Heterogeneous grouping also isn't fair to teachers. How can one individual efficiently meet the needs of twenty-four children at various different skill levels throughout the day? It isn't feasible. Not only are teachers meant to come up with lessons plans that cover a range of abilities, they must find time during the day to address each one. Most teachers do a wonderful job within this framework, but are being limited by the mainstreaming trend.

As a compromise, they may be forced to create a single lesson meant for everyone. Depending on the topic, this generalized discussion may only accurately target a handful of students. Teachers adapt to the paradigm, juggling the needs of everyone, but in the end grouping students by skill level permits teachers to get more out of their own effort.

Imagine a school with three third-grade classes each with a mix of children reading at three different reading levels.  In one option each teacher spends all their time with their own students all day long. Let's say they have a forty-five minute period for reading. The typical way to differentiate instruction in this situation is to spend fifteen minutes of reading time teaching to level A, then B, and then C, while the unattended children practice on their own (they probably lose time as the teacher moves between groups as well, but that's beside the point for the moment).

In option two, all children are periodically assessed and regrouped based on progress throughout the year. One teacher spends a full forty-five minutes with the kids reading at level A from all three classrooms, one teacher forty five minutes with level B, and one teacher forty-five minutes with level C. The second method creates a full period of direct instruction for each group and allows teachers to tailor their lessons. It is almost certainly a more effective use of a teacher's time - but most classrooms today follow something more like the first model.

Individualized Planning

While mainstreaming remains the long term goal for everyone, truly individualized planning in the short term considers pull out services and self-contained classes - yet more and more, these options have been eliminated or are summarily dismissed.  Instead of striving for exactly the same education for every child, we should aim to give all children the education that best fits their needs. Within the general student population children can be moved within classrooms based on skills, or regrouped into different classrooms. For children with specific educational diagnoses, like autism or reading disabilities, intensive interventions can continue throughout the day, not thirty minutes here or there.  For students advanced in certain topics time can be dedicated towards promoting their specific skills.   Through this type of consistent, long-sighted academic intervention, children are most likely to thrive.

For those children struggling in the mainstream, switching into a more protected and academically targeted setting can change a child's life all in a moment. This year, Jennifer T. moved into a special education setting for children with reading disabilities. She had spent years diligently working but barely getting by academically, in spite of intensive services and tutoring. Here's what her mother has to say: "My daughter is happier, and all of a sudden confident in herself. She's proud of her work, and we aren't arguing over homework anymore. She's starting to read for fun. It's amazing, it's like the whole world has opened up around her." And isn't that the goal of education to start?

Mark Bertin, M.D.,is a developmental behavioral pediatrician, an assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College, and the author of The Family ADHD Solution.

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