Letter: Feelings, self-esteem are not a substitute for learning

Posted 4/15/21

To the editor:

Concerning the “de-leveling” of the curriculum, the Barrington School Committee should note that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) …

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Letter: Feelings, self-esteem are not a substitute for learning


To the editor:

Concerning the “de-leveling” of the curriculum, the Barrington School Committee should note that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducts examinations of 15-year old students periodically and ranks participating countries. You will find that the United States has a ranking of 25th from the top in mathematics and 20th in science. We are the worst among the industrialized countries and lag behind countries such as Japan, France, Sweden, Germany and Ireland. This ranking should provide motivation for increasing the rigor of the curriculum, maintaining classes with graded instructional levels to challenge and motivate the hardest working and most talented students, and, as well, adding to the current number of advanced classes taught here. With regard to ability grouping, it is of note that Germany and Japan maintain different high schools based on ability while the mean OECD exam scores for these countries surpass those for American students.

I am currently Professor of Chemistry at Brown University, which admits some of the most talented students nationwide. Over the years I find in introductory chemistry classes that students have great difficulty in working quantitative chemistry problems. Problems that are found in the acids and bases part the course require an understanding of what chemical reactions take place, how to transform the chemical parameters into algebraic expressions, and then to solve the equations. Every year I have taught introductory chemistry I find that that far too many students perform at an unacceptably low level. The reason for their failure can almost certainly be traced to the depth of their high school courses in mathematics and the physical sciences.

It is worthwhile to reflect on how the United States is to compete in high technology fields if educational levels are lowered. Our standard of living is strongly dependent on scientific and technological advancement to keep well-paying high technology jobs here. The scientists and engineers who advance technology are drawn from the top tiers of scientific and mathematical talent—precisely the group whom you are planning to hold back with your de-leveling policy.

The effects of grouping students according to talent have been studied for at least a century. Steengergen-Hu et al. (Rev. Ed. Res. 86, 849, 2016) who examined numerous studies on grouping summarize their findings with the statement “The preponderance of existing evidence accumulated over the past century suggests that academic acceleration and most forms of ability grouping like cross-grade subject grouping and special grouping for gifted students can greatly improve K–12 students’ academic achievement.”

The authors give quantitative measures for three kinds of groupings: within class, cross grade, and special grouping for the gifted. The improvements are all positive and significant.

Your BHS Levels Update uses phrases such as

• Students are “more engaged and are empowered to excel to high levels”

• ‘We were not achieving our commitment to empower all students to excel”

• A collaborative and inclusive learning environment builds empathy, self-confidence, efficacy, and greater well-being for all students

Personal feelings and self-esteem are not a substitute for actual learning. Lowering the opportunities for advancement of the best and most motivated students by lowering the content of their classes in the name of equal outcomes is a blatant disservice to the brightest, hardest working, and most highly motivated students. As well, it is ultimately a misdirected route to overcoming the entrenched mediocrity in primary and secondary education in the USA.

The curriculum should be returned to its former state.


Gerald J. Diebold


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Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.