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Homogeneous Grouping and “The Resentment That Never Sleeps”

December 11, 2020

Earlier this week, Thomas Edsall wrote an op ed article titled “The Resentment That Never Sleeps“. Like all of Edsall’s articles, this one was chock full of statistics, quotes from economists and political scientists, and informed experts all of whom were expressing their belief that “rising anxiety and declining social status” among white non-college graduates led to the election and sustained support for Donald Trump. One quote from the article stood out: 

“Hierarchal ranking, the status classification of different groups — the well-educated and the less-well educated, white people and Black people, the straight and L.G.B.T.Q. communities — has the effect of consolidating and seeming to legitimize existing inequalities in resources and power.”

As a Boomer who attended, worked in, and led public schools from 1953-2011 I believe the political divides Mr. Edsall describes are a consequence of homogeneous grouping in public education, a practice that was particularly and explicitly prevalent in the 50s, 60s and early 70s and persists in more subtle ways today. While the “ability grouping” of students is presumably based on legitimate factors– test scores and grades– and presumably changeable over time, the practical reality is that once a child is labelled as “gifted” or “high ability” they are treated differently than their cohorts who see themselves (and are often seen by teachers) as “un-gifted” or “low ability”. Much of the resentment Mr. Edsall describes is rooted in the messages those “incapable” students receive day in and day out for years while they witness the “gifted and talented” students attaining scholarships and prizes at commencement ceremonies and the sustained praise of teachers and other authority figures throughout their school years. 

Because my father was transferred across the country when I was growing up, I gained a unique perspective on how this kind of grouping impacts students. In grades 1 through 3 I attended elementary school in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Because I was read to as a child and, as the oldest sibling, read to my younger brother and sisters, I was a good reader and consequently was placed in the “advanced” reading group, which meant I was also in the advanced math group.

At the end of third grade, our family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the mid-1950s, Tulsa’s 4th grade was identical to West Chester’s 3rd grade and so I breezed through all my school work. At the conclusion of 5th grade, our elementary school launched a program for “gifted and talented” students, one that I qualified for based on my grades, some tests I took, and an interview I had with the person who was overseeing the program. I still have fond memories of 6th grade, the first and only year I was “gifted and talented”. Our class was small and we got to go on field trips to museums, to work on projects that interested us, and read whatever we wanted. Some of my friends from 5th grade who were not in my class chided me and my classmates on the playground as being stuck up, though I don’t recall acting any differently. 

As sixth grade came to an end and it was time to register for junior high, my father announced we were moving back to West Chester, PA. I was thrilled with the idea of reuniting with some of my friends I knew from elementary school and eager to join my classmates at the shiny new Junior High in the brochure my father got from the realtor. On the first day of school, I went to homeroom where we were grouped alphabetically, and received my schedule which showed that I was assigned to section 7-12 for my classes in history, geography, mathematics, science, reading, shop, PE and English. I quickly discovered that 7-12 was a far cry from the “gifted and talented” group in Oklahoma. There were 35 of us in the group and some of my classmates struggled to read and solve math problems and a few were completely disinterested in school. I also noted that my friends from the top reading group in 3rd grade were not in my section: they were in 7-1 or 7-2 and when I compared notes with them I found that they were moving through the books faster than we were. I did well, making the honor roll, playing on the JV football team, and acting in the school plays, but I was not nearly as engaged academically. And for that year, and the five years that followed, I was part of “the second tier” of students; a group who might go to college but who just as easily might go to work. Those of us in the second tier were never explicitly told we were “ungifted and untalented”, but it was clear that we were not as smart as the “gifted” kids in the top two sections.

Having gone from “gifted and talented” to “second tier” in one year and witnessed the academic skill of many of my “second tier” cohorts I came to appreciate the absurdity of labelling students at an early age and holding fast to those labels throughout a student’s career. I also came to sense the resentment that “second tier” children feel towards their “gifted” age cohorts, and can understand how that resentment can persist into adulthood.  

Given my personal experience, I am not surprised to note that when Democrats run candidates from the “gifted” sections they have paid the price… Al Gore, John Kerry and Hilary Clinton all evoke the resentment “second tier” students felt toward the kids who had all the advantages and received the adoration of teachers. Donald Trump, on the other hand, tapped into the resentment of the 75% of “ungifted and untalented” students to win his election in 2020 and now the GOP sees the obvious: that if they capitalize on this resentment they can ensure that they stay in power… and if they do not play to the resentment they will be put out of office in the “safe districts” they created.

In the end, if we want to end the resentment that drives authoritarianism, we should honor the gifts and talents of everyone. It will take a while to get the fruits of that approach to teaching and learning, but it will be worthwhile. 

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