In Defense of Academic Segregation

Why Graded’s Policy of Equality is Failing Its Students


Credits: Public Domain

Over the course of my last class trip at Graded, I found myself spending a significant amount of time reflecting on the years I’ve spent here. Graded has been my home since I was in 8th grade, and, now that I am a senior, I have spent all four years of high school here. Sitting on the beach in Bahia, I recalled all of my class trips that had preceded this one. I remembered the sheer magnitude of Foz de Iguaçu and Itaipu. I recalled experiencing Northeastern culture in Salvador. I reminisced about the beauty of Patagonia. For a moment, I felt as if those memories had been formed only yesterday. Then I thought of all that had occurred in between those trips.


Old friends have left. New friends have come. Old teachers and administrators have left. New ones have come. I have changed. Grading systems have changed (multiple times). As I relaxed in a hammock, I thought about the fundamental causes of the good and the bad of my life at Graded. It dawned on me that, despite the change, many of these fundamental forces have remained the same. Now I could spend the next few hundred words romanticizing the great things about this school–the lifelong friends I’ve made, the supportive teachers I’ve met, the fried chicken–but where’s the fun in that? So instead, I’m going to identify an issue that has stood out to me about Graded these past four years.


For four years, I’ve been frustrated by the monolithic nature of the Graded course structure. Despite the changes that have occurred to the Class of 2017 over the years, it has always been a diverse group. We are marked not only by different nationalities and languages, but by different interests and different learning styles. So why were we, year after year, un-strategically placed into the same classrooms with the same curricula? When I was a 9th and 10th grader, math was the only class that had different levels. I found myself exasperated by almost every other class.


Take Integrated Science, for example. It was a course where I wanted a richer experience than many of the other students did. Each class, I struggled to summon the energy necessary to pay attention. Yet I still did well on every test. At the same time, many of my peers struggled to achieve a passing grade. Let me be clear: I am not saying the class was extremely easy yet people still failed. On the contrary, the class was simply taught in a broad style that reflected the too-broad composition of the class. Because of this, the class was constantly forced to move forward regardless of whether all students had learned. For this reason, my peers did not fail the class. The nature of the class failed them, just like it failed me.


Many lessons can be learned from Integrated Science. To me, it shows that a diverse group of students cannot be expected to follow an identical curriculum. It shows that the learning of some students is severely hindered by a lack of advanced material. It also shows that when some students are struggling, in an integrated classroom they might not be given the attention they need to succeed. In most classes of my 9th and 10th grade years, this pattern was repeated. As a result, I was excited to move on to the IB in 11th grade. I thought that these lessons would finally be learned. The reality, however, is that there is still a lot of room for improvement.


The distinction between HL and SL certainly helps, but it can only do so much when it is actively being blurred. In Economics and History, HL and SL are classes are mixed together despite significant differences in the curriculum. In Economics, this difference manifested itself over and over again. The teacher would repeatedly tell the the SL students to go wait in the library while we covered HL topics. In History, the SL topics have been given far greater priority. What does this mean? It means that the classroom time of SL students is being wasted and the greater difficulty of the HL course is being neglected.


This status quo must change. Graded has enough students and faculty, especially in the 9th and 10th grades, to group classes by academic level. Around the world, education systems have recognized that grouping students in this way is the most effective way to teach. According to the New York Times, “teachers and principals who use grouping say that the practice has become indispensable, helping them cope with widely varying levels of ability and achievement” (Yee). Graded is not coping. It is time for our school to realize that one size does not fit all.  


When I’ve made these arguments to my friends, many of them seemed appalled. They hit back that separating students by academic level would be humiliating to the students placed in lower levels. They argued that placing high and low achieving students would incentivize those who struggle to work harder to succeed. The academic literature, however, is inconclusive. “Some studies conclude that grouping improves test scores in students of all levels, others that it helps high-achieving students while harming low-achieving ones, and still others say that it has little effect” (Yee). The positive effects outweigh the negative, however, because many of the negative effects can be mitigated by a change in mindset. We don’t fear, for example, that cutting students from the soccer team will humiliate them. It doesn’t embarrass me, for one, to accept that I am terrible at sports. Recognizing our abilities and organizing ourselves accordingly, then, shouldn’t be seen as cause for shame. We need to understand that each one of us has a wide range of strengths and weaknesses, and we should be encouraged to explore them rather than be forced to reach an arbitrarily determined level of adequacy in everything.


To understand why our school should separate its classes, let us look at the success of the IB math system. I am very grateful that Graded has HL math because many of  my friends are finally not bored in Math class. Why? Because I know the feeling. I spent years feeling unchallenged in class. Yet I am not humiliated that I am not in the highest class. Rather, I am glad that I had the opportunity to take SL math because I know that I would have struggled in HL to understand material that I am completely uninterested in. I’d rather devote time to what I care about.
That is why we need some degree of segregation. Right now, the system only benefits those in the middle. Advanced students cannot fulfill their potential because higher levels are not offered. Struggling students cannot fulfill their potential because they are forced to devote hours to passing a class that they have no interest in when they could instead be focusing on their passions. Graded needs to learn that forcing the same curriculum onto every student, especially underclassmen, is preventing us from reaching our full potential.