One could hardly disagree that recent generations have experienced increasingly mechanized school practices. Issues impacting school administrators such as data-driven decision-making and management theories, borrowed from industry, are obvious examples of this trend. Most educators accept ability grouping, standardized testing, A-F grading, zero tolerance and compartmentalized curricula without a second thought because they have never been exposed to an alternative.
Schooling is on cruise control even when common assumptions are not in the best interest of learners. The automation of schooling limits autonomy and allows services to be "delivered" on the cheap.
When skillful teachers get to really know their students, they can use their creativity to design activities and materials that meet each student's needs. In such contexts, curricula, pedagogical strategies, assessments and even the physical learning environment may be changed to realize the potential of each student.
School leaders can get away with homogeneity or mechanized instructional practices until kids fall through the cracks and parents complain. This partially explains the curious epidemic of learning disabilities as well as the proliferation of IB and AP courses, and gifted and talented programs. When children are treated like interchangeable widgets, parents will demand labels designating their children as unique and deserving of services.
I've taught incarcerated teens diagnosed with a plethora of learning disabilities and 10-year-olds engaged in cancer research, engineering and music composition. These kids have more in common than one would think. They need productive contexts for learning in which teachers build upon their individual needs, talents, expertise and desires without sorting, labeling, name calling, fear or coercion. Students need to engage in meaningful work with the support, materials and time necessary to demonstrate understanding.
In the absence of learner-centered conditions, gifted and talented and special education services are required. Ironically, these interventions are endangered by the very forces that required their existence. Today, shortages of funding, leadership or imagination cause gifted and talented programs to be sacrificed for something called enrichment.
Enrichment is derived from Latin for "children of rich parents who complain." In many cases, enrichment becomes its own course for children fortunate enough to gain entrance. Enrichment is too often a pull-out program where a very small number of kids leave their regular classroom to engage in the sorts of enriching activities that would benefit every child, while disrupting the child's classroom. My informal research and experience suggests that enrichment is where lucky students experience project-based learning, read books they enjoy, play games and take field trips. Sometimes any child (who can afford it) may elect to be part of enrichment.
I am all for field trips-lots of them! That's where many students see their first play, hear a cello, touch a squid, see a Van Gogh, meet a scientist, climb a fire truck, consider a career, or spend their own money in a gift shop. Field trips offer the opportunity to learn many lessons related to the curriculum and life outside of the classroom. Field trips provide poor children with the sorts of opportunities more affluent students take for granted.
At a time when funding priorities have made field trips a distant memory, they are a hallmark of enrichment. Not only does this aggravate educational inequity, but the field trips for enrichment students often have little educational value. Trips to the mall, Disney films, Broadway shows, or even the circus are not uncommon treats made available to enrichment students whose parents can afford them. Such field trips are an entitlement that sends the message to a handful of children that you are deserving of privileges your classmates won't enjoy.
Curriculum connections could be made to ensure that field trips are educationally meaningful, but why bother? There isn't time during the occasional enrichment session to explore the significance of the Titanic. But what the heck, we'll bus them to look at Titanic artifacts anyway. Besides, enrichment and its field trips aren't about enriching the curriculum. They are about telling one group of parents that their children are better than the rest.
Gary S. Stager, email@example.com, is senior editor of District Administration and editor of The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate.