The Death Knoll for the Bell Curve

In 2004, as a fairly new teacher, I sat in a room and listened to district leaders explain President Bush’s plan to improve education—the now defunct, but then new law—No Child Left Behind.  They put some charts up on a screen and explained that by 2014, 100% of America’s children were expected to reach proficiency in reading and math.

I remember thinking at the time that President Bush was insane and had no clue about mathematics.  Hadn’t he ever heard of the bell curve?  Didn’t he know that it was impossible for 100% of students to reach proficiency?

We have always had winners and losers in American schools.  I did not see how just setting a goal for 100% proficiency would be able to change that paradigm or change the ways our schools were operating.  

I left that meeting feeling depressed about the future of education.  I was deeply afraid that pushing for better test scores was not just impossible, but likely to cause extreme damage to the way that schools worked.  I envisioned a narrowing of the curriculum and a move towards “teaching to the test”.  I envisioned shaming of teachers who were working with some of the toughest kids in some of the toughest schools.

Those who have been involved in education since 2004 will know that a narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test did indeed occur in many American schools.  In fact, some schools resorted to cheating as a response to high stakes testing.  Many districts cut programs—like art and music—that were not being tested.  Public shaming of teachers happened.  Newspapers published lists of teachers and schools who were not doing well at raising test scores.  

A lot of damage to education was indeed done in the name of No Child Left Behind.

However, something kind of wonderful happened as well.

Teachers started talking more.  We started looking at data in new ways.  We started asking questions about students that weren’t learning.  We started getting more inventive—if our leaders empowered us—and looking beyond the letter of the law.

The professional learning community (PLC) movement became stronger and schools and districts began giving time and resources to enable teachers to work together and get better at the art and science of teaching.

In the 13 years since that day, I have learned a lot about teaching and learning.  I have been training myself in the science of learning—both from a psychological perspective and from a neurological perspective—and I am now ready to throw out my unhelpful story that it is impossible for 100% of students to reach proficiency.

I am ready to declare the death knoll for the bell curve.

I now believe that the bell curve is a product of expecting all students to learn at the same rate.  It is a product of expecting that all students can be sorted by age level and are equally ready to learn.  It is a product of expecting that all students in a grade must be studying the same things at the same time.

Although I don’t know of any school or district that has yet achieved a system that has truly killed the bell curve, I know of many (and more joining them every year) that are well on their way towards creating personalized learning systems that harness the natural power of human brains to learn.

I recently discovered Competency Works—an organization that posts daily doses of inspiration about what schools, districts, and entire states around the country are doing to shift the model of American education from a grade-level based (what some have called a factory) model to a personalized model that allows students more “choice and voice” in their learning.

Here is just a brief snippet from a post by Karla Esparza-Phillips and Ace Parsi.

“In his book The End of Average, Todd Rose describes how a faulty belief in the idea of an average student has led to the design of one-size-fits all systems.  Rose state that “there can never be equal opportunity on average.  Only equal fit creates equal opportunity.”

This is the premise of personalized learning—designing systems flexible and responsive enough to address students’ needs as well as build on their strengths and interest, thus recognizing what every parent and teacher has always known—that every child is different.

Our hope is that personalized learning may present the opportunity to flip the traditional model upside down.  Or better yet, put it right side up.”

The work these schools have done to empower teachers, administrators, parents, and students is awe inspiring and fills me with deep wells of hope for public education.

I can now envision a time when American educators have been empowered so much that they are able to give each brain exactly what it needs to learn

I can now envision a time when all students are empowered enough to see themselves as powerful learners who are fully capable of mastery of anything.

I can now envision a time when I no longer hear students saying things like “I hate math.” or “Reading is stupid.”  

I can now envision a time when 100% of students in a school are excellent readers.

I can now envision a time when we shake our heads at people who believed that the bell curve was a reflection of natural intelligence much the same way we shake our heads at people who believed the shapes of our skulls indicated our intellectual potential.

 

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