“Modern” Age-based Schooling perpetuates the “Retarded” Stigma

Today, personal computers and technological advances provide schools with the opportunity to individualize teaching and learning. However, this schooling model was common in American schools during the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. Schools of this era were one-room schoolhouses, attended by students with a wide range of ages, skills, and backgrounds. Once in school, however, each student worked on a variety of subjects at his/her skill level and progressed at his/her rate. Most importantly, all of this individualized teaching and learning occurred in one school with one classroom taught by one teacher.

Class sizes often exceeded 30 students. Teachers of these one-room schools regularly taught a wide range of subjects to students ranging in age from five to eighteen. However, the teacher customized each child’s education using individualized learning. The business model was competency based or not an age-based system. Each student worked to complete the full range of each subject’s material over time.

Typical eighteenth and nineteenth century students lived on farms and walked, rode horses, or traveled by buggy to school. Because male students were often needed more for planting, maintaining, and harvesting crops as well as animal husbandry, male students might attend schools ranging from three to six months per year. Typically, female students more regularly attended school more regularly, often attending for five to eight months.

Mastery of each subject’s material was the goal; students did not graduate until they mastered the topics they were studying. A student’s progress was determined by his/her time in the classroom and individual abilities and motivation; however, no student was expected to move at an age-based rate. It was common for students to attend school during slow farming cycles, and pick up where they left off upon returning to school. Therefore, it was common to have 14 or 15 year male students studying fifth grade level material, for example. Most importantly, no stigma was attached to these students because each student was learning on a completion basis rather than an age basis.

The advent of industrialization brought major migration from farms to urban areas with people seeking jobs in urban area manufacturing businesses. To deal with this large influx of students, urban schools ushered in standardized age-based schooling. The norm became how well a student performed in his/her age-based-grade rather than according to competency, completion, or mastery of subject matter.

As public schools got bigger, they became more standardized. Standardized testing based on a Bell curve added additional inequities. Students performing well on standardized tests often came from advantaged backgrounds while students living in poverty or those now referred to as “special education” performed poorly. Students with low test scores are deemed the equivalent of “retarded” by the standardized system.

Standardized age-based schooling causes students who do not perform well versus age-based norms to be labeled as “retarded.” Standardized tests and the over-use of standardized tests worsen the problem. The result is a double whammy for under-performers:  the age-based system labels their performance as “retarded” compared to their similarly aged peers whether in the age-based classroom or on standardized tests.

Once the one room school norm of competency and completion at one’s own pace was discarded, age-based norms made invidious comparisons common. The “retarded” concept has grown to imply overall mental slowness or deficiency. Today, “retarded” children considered inferior students, grow up many times to be considered inferior members of society, or deficient to work in our knowledge-based economy.

Few one-room schoolhouses remain; however, the legacy of the “retarded” concept and practice continues to permeate much of education and society at-large. Today it takes on new forms. Special education pupils suffer this stigma as do those who simply blossom in later grades but fail to achieve age-based norms in earlier grades. This stigma is a clarion call to respect all students regardless of ability level, and include this in all education reform action plans.




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