Lost In The Middle

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Like most 13-year-olds, Brian Wennerstrum loves video games and his mom--and isn't all that crazy about school. An eighth-grader at Callanan Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa, he is quiet and well-mannered, a little unfocused at times, and popular with classmates and teachers. He diligently attempts all the work assigned to him in class, doesn't raise his hand much and almost never speaks up unless he's called upon. Brian's favorite subject? Without hesitation: it's "P.E."

Brian's mother Mary describes her son as "just your average, basic kid." And these days, that means he's just the kind of student who can be overlooked. As a fourth-grader, Brian was placed in a cramped class of 34 students; midway through the school year, the teacher left, and a succession of substitutes took over. By the time Brian started fifth grade, his reading skills were a full year below grade level. "Basically," his mother says, "he got ignored for an entire year."

With the help of a teacher who tutored him after school, Brian has made up most of the lost ground, but he still struggles in reading and admits it's his most dreaded subject. And while he's not qualified for more advanced, enriching work, he does not score poorly enough to receive the special assistance provided kids with learning disabilities. "If I could give him a label, I know there would be all sorts of extra help for him," sighs Mary. Brian is mired in the middle, and even his teachers admit that's a bad place to be. "The high end and the low end of the class can take up all your energies," says Lori Milligan, his seventh-grade science teacher. Casting an eye toward Brian, she adds, "Then there are the rest--the quiet kids who aren't disruptive, who don't need your undivided attention. Where do they fit in?"

The answer, more often than not, is nowhere. Across the U.S., average students like Brian Wennerstrum--a group researchers call "woodwork children" because of their tendency to fade into the classroom background--are suffering from an unofficial policy of neglect as public schools overlook students in the middle in favor of the bright stars or the learning disabled. The share of public-school budgets devoted to "regular education"--which almost two-thirds of students receive--plummeted from 80% in 1967 to less than 59% in 1996, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The trend has accelerated in the past decade. From 1991 to 1996, regular ed accounted for just 23% of total spending on new school programs. Average students have become casualties of a spoils system in which every morsel of every school district's budget has a different interest group staking a claim to it. "If you don't have someone representing you, your needs get lost," says William Purkey, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "The average child slips through the cracks. There's no strong voice on their behalf."

That may soon change. This fall a report on the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), commissioned by the National Science Foundation, will present a litany of unsettling findings on the quality of American public schooling compared with that of the rest of the world. One conclusion: the deficiency of America's average students is a major reason for the woeful U.S. performance in the TIMSS exams. Too many schools, the report says, "have sacrificed the attainments of more average students in an attempt to bolster the performance of better students." As a result, American eighth- and 12th-graders on the whole lag below the international average in math and are not even within earshot of top countries like Japan, South Korea and Singapore. "The other nations of the world don't subdivide children on the basis of content. The content is the same for ordinary, average students and for the very best ones," says Michigan State professor William Schmidt, the study's national research coordinator. "That's what makes all the difference."

What makes this trend even more troubling is its departure from the historic mission of U.S. public schools. Americans have always regarded education as a critical cog in the machinery of democracy. But they have also prided themselves on constructing "common" institutions that, unlike European schools, geared lessons to the middle and did not select elites early. Educators stressed that a program suitable for the best students was also good enough for the average ones. By catering to average students and preparing them for stable jobs, America's public schools would help build an educated, prosperous middle class.

But today that ideal of common public education is being subverted from within, as principals like Dinzle Adams, who heads Halls High School in Knoxville, Tenn., can attest. "We do a heck of a job with our high achievers and a good job with special-needs students," he says, "and it's almost like reverse discrimination against the average kid."

How did average students get handed this raw deal? Part of the answer lies in special education, which was established in the mid-'70s to cover physically disabled students and children with severe mental handicaps. And over the past 20 years, the ranks of another group covered by the law--students classified as learning disabled--have ballooned. In 1975 there were 800,000 public-school students (1.8% of the total) classified as learning disabled; today that number is 2.6 million, or 4.3%. It costs $9 billion a year to educate learning-disabled kids.

Much has been made of the abuse of the learning-disability law by middle-class parents desperate to get help for their underachieving children, but the real problems are more subtle. The rising numbers of learning-disabled (or "special needs") students have altered classroom dynamics in ways that harm average kids' ability to learn. The old practice of sticking special-ed kids in separate classes for the duration of the school day has given way to the policy of "mainstreaming," or "inclusion": nearly half of all special-needs students--and many more than that in suburban districts--spend most of the day in regular classes with nondisabled students. Though schools often assign a teacher's aide to oversee learning-disabled pupils, teachers in regular classrooms now have to handle those students--many of whom have serious behavior problems as well--while keeping everyone else on track.

Average students pay the price. At Halls Middle School in Knoxville, half the students in Gay Clapp's sixth-grade science class last year were classified as having "special needs." One day last spring, after giving her class a plant diagram to color, Clapp watched as a group of boys got up to hang out at the pencil sharpener, and other students wandered the room for supplies; for a few moments, all order broke down. "It's overwhelming," says Clapp, who has taught for 39 years. "Dealing with this many kids and this many different needs wears you out. And by a long shot, the average student loses out." In Buffalo, N.Y., seventh-grade teacher Rebecca Heim confronts similar frustrations. Eight of her 24 students last year had special needs. "They end up holding back the class because of the constant disruption to the classroom," Heim says. "That's a disservice to the regular-ed students."

Those students receive a double blow from learning-disabilities laws: not only is their learning in mixed classrooms often compromised, but they are also barred from reaping the benefits--small-group instruction, protection from discipline, extra time on standardized tests--afforded the learning-disabled students. That frustrates principals like Mary Gordon of Windsor Elementary School in Des Moines. There, learning-disabled first-graders who have trouble with reading get pulled out for periods of the day to attend a small-group session with a tutor; meanwhile, the sizes of the two regular classes swell as high as 28 or 29. "Why not make it legal to use the special-education funds to help pay for a third class," she sensibly asks, "and have three classes of 17?"

Even as they bear the brunt of laws tailored to help more troublesome classmates, woodwork children get ripped off by practices designed to enrich their more studious peers. In most public middle and high schools, high-achieving students spend at least part of their day in accelerated classes filled with other high achievers, where teachers rarely have to tend to slow learners or misbehaving problem children. Although most schools have abandoned the older, cruder forms of "tracking" students--which separated children early in their school careers on the basis of test scores, resulting in segregation within racially integrated schools--a majority still "group" kids according to ability in particular subjects. Ability grouping has become a national assumption: more than 80% of American middle and high schools have at least two different levels of math classes for each grade.

To parents of high performers, it seems like a reasonable enough way to keep their kids challenged. "What do you do with the very high-ability student who's sitting in your classroom, who's ready to move on?" asks Peter Rosenstein, executive director of the National Association of Gifted Children. "The intuitive part of this is that you have to use ability grouping." And, claims Buffalo board of education head Marlies Weslowski, "a pittance is spent on gifted children." But money isn't everything. In schools that group by ability, the best students are more likely to have access to teachers who specialize in the subject, to newer materials and facilities, and perhaps most important, to higher expectations from teachers and a more challenging curriculum. "All the things we think matter in terms of a high-quality education, we disproportionately give to high achievers," says Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at UCLA.

In Des Moines, for instance, middle and high school students who score in the 98th and 99th percentiles on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills can elect to spend part of the school day taking honors and advanced- placement classes at the city's Central Academy. Last year Central Academy produced more National Merit Scholars than the entire state of Minnesota. It is a superb school, but for average students like Brian Wennerstrum who remain behind, it represents a big part of the problem. "When you pull the best and brightest out for half a day, that leaves the average kids in the building," says Mary Wennerstrum. "Who are those kids supposed to emulate?"

Many researchers argue that the supposed advantages of ability grouping do not pan out in practice. Robert Slavin, an educational researcher at Johns Hopkins University, has found that high and middle achievers do just as well in "heterogeneous" classrooms as they do in classes populated by kids just like them. And low achievers do better. Says Slavin: "My argument is, Why would you continue grouping students if it doesn't seem to benefit anybody?" One answer: parents of motivated students tend to be pretty motivated and skilled at persuading school boards to sustain classes that provide something special for their children. In an era in which gaining admission to top-shelf high schools and colleges has become a blood sport, self-interest trumps community building most of the time. In Montclair, N.J., lawsuits brought by African-American parents in the late 1980s forced Montclair High School to detrack one course--ninth-grade literature--so that students of all abilities and test scores would sit next to each other and read the same books. School officials say students who previously went unnoticed are flourishing. "Kids have started to find they have a voice in the room," says teacher Dana Sherman. "When you start giving kids a voice, achievement is one of the outcomes." Still, after five years, the program hasn't spread to any other classes in the district. "You know who the parents are who are upset," says Sherman. "It's the parents of the kids who have traditionally been in the high-honors classes. They don't buy it. They think it's a touchy-feely course."

Given the hypercompetitive climate in middle-class schools, it seems unlikely those parents will ever be converted. But average students can still be rescued if policymakers committed to the ideals of public education resist interest-group politics and pressure from powerful parents. Revamping special-education laws, to give school districts more flexibility in distributing resources, would give a boost to woodwork kids. So would offering incentives for schools to minimize ability grouping or bonuses for schools that put top-notch teachers--who generally instruct gifted children--in middle-achieving classrooms. Michigan State's Schmidt says the predicament of America's average students illustrates the need for a set of "national standards that would articulate what all of our kids need to know." But the first step may be even simpler--as simple as challenging average kids as much as we do the brightest students. Just ask Meghan Malone, a high-achieving, freckle-faced Des Moines ninth-grader. "When you expect all kids to be smart," she says, walking out of her honors English class, "they will be." It may not be that easy, but it would be a start.