The War Against Excellence:
The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Schools
by Cheri Pierson Yecke
($49.95, 296 pages, Praeger Publishers, 2003, ISBN: 0275981169)
One of the expectations parents have for schools is that they affirm in their offspring the nation’s fundamental values and promote academic excellence.
Parents wouldn’t find that in many schools today, according to Cheri Pierson Yecke in her new book about the middle-school reform movement, The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Schools.
“American values such as rewarding individual effort, honoring individual achievement, and promoting healthy competition have given way to a capricious smorgasbord of liberal ideas that undermine … traditional values in many of our schools,” writes Yecke, arguing the movement’s core values are un-American.
“Beliefs driving radical equity include the leveling of achievement and the desire for equality of outcomes,” she adds. “This is in stark contrast with the premise underlying our nation’s founding principles.”
That stark contrast is why Yecke, who is Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education, writes in her introduction, “[T]his is a story that has to be told.” The story she tells is meticulously researched, well-documented, and rich with supporting evidence.
Yecke relates the history of American middle schools, focusing on a reform movement dedicated to egalitarianism that took shape in the middle of the twentieth century. As part of that movement, a body of research and literature grew around the following key ideas:
- middle-school students cannot learn challenging material;
- treating students differently based on skill level is harmful; and
- middle schools should be used to conduct social experiments.
The National Middle School Association (NMSA), founded in 1973, embraced those ideas and, as Yecke documents in the book, led a movement to make all students equal through the suppression of excellent students. Yecke provides titles and excerpts from many of the NMSA’s conference sessions and published articles to show how the group spread its bias against gifted students and content-based curriculum.
This, writes Yecke, is unethical. “Public schools were never meant to be the vehicle for massive social experiments aimed at achieving the questionable utopian goals of an elite few,” she writes.
Clearly the most destructive and widely practiced method to accomplish these ends is the educational practice of “heterogeneous grouping.” Here students within classes are broken into groups and given group assignments. The groups intermingle talented students with students who, though capable, either do not apply themselves to the same degree or do not grasp concepts as quickly.
The result of this heterogeneous grouping is that gifted students who already understand the material are not challenged by the content, thereby preventing their advancement and attenuating their ability to perform. At the same time, the students who do not grasp the material as quickly do not participate as much in the project at hand, convinced the more talented students can do the work faster and more completely. These non-participants, who are in need of practice far more than the gifted students, then fall further behind their peers.
Yecke explains how this process also takes place with other instructional practices such as peer tutoring and cooperative learning.
Thus, in an attempt to treat all students equally, proponents of egalitarianism and “heterogeneous grouping” effectively restrain the academic growth of more talented students while also alienating other students who simply take longer to grasp the same concepts.
“Amazingly,” writes Yecke, the message from the proponents of egalitarianism “is that high-ability students should succumb to peer pressure and strive not to achieve, or they will risk making their classmates look bad–and their actions might even go so far as to force these non-motivated students to work harder!”
Jonathan Butcher is a research assistant in domestic policy at The Heritage Foundation. His email address is [email protected].