A recent article in Dagens Nyheter discusses “elite classes” in elementary school, i e classes where the students get more advanced courses in maths, physics, history, or whatever. The news item itself is that there is not a whole lot of applications to these classes, but they also quote Marie Granlund, Social Democratic spokesperson for school issues, to the effect that elite classes will create A and B teams in school, something which is anathema to the Social Democrats (to which I, on and off, count myself). I instinctively reacted with annoyance to this, but better to sort out what's what, and see what will be a rational position to take.

To begin with, as the reporter asks, why is it OK to have special classes for practical training, such as sports, music, etc, but not for more “intellectual” subjects? This never gets answered by Granlund, who just reaffirms that advanced physics classes cause student segmentation (skiktning), whereas advanced sports classes do not. Now, I've heard the argument before from Social Democratic school politicians that demands for raised academic standards are a means to keep working class children down. There is a point to this, though often left unspoken: Children in better-off families tend to get considerably more support* from home with doing homework, simply having a tradition of reading and education being taken for granted. Accordingly, I suspect the unspoken assumption is that the A and B teams feared are not split according to the giftedness of the children, but according to the wallet size of their parents.† This, I agree, is a Bad Thing. Unfortunately, the ingrained reaction of the Social Democrats is to insist that No Child Can Be Left Behind—no matter your grades, you always get to move ahead to the next class, to high school, to university, in the bizarre hope that the under-achieving student will be so overwhelmed by gratitude at this kind deed that they immediately get their act together and not only diligently study in their ordinary classes but at the same time also do all the studying they did not do in lower grades. I'm quite positive this does not work.

Segregation is a Bad Thing, as having no experience and understanding of how other people live is likely to increase tensions in society. Mixing is not a guarantee for peace, love, and understanding, but perhaps raises the chances a bit at least. Schools are of course segregated based on where the children live, which correlates with socio-economic status, so a relative once noted that compulsory military service was the one place in Sweden were men from truly all walks of life got to meet each other. I suspect this is not entirely true, certainly I had a higher than random proportion of friends working as programmers at Navy HQ and quite a few top dogs in society have passed through the famous Interpreter School, but in principle the idea held. Now that just a few get to perform their military (or non-military, for that matter) service, segregation would seem to increase.

Then again, segregation can be good, for other reasons. As I've pointed out before, being intellectually gifted is not necessarily appreciated by other people, whereas being, say, even a half-decent musician is always a hit. (Haha. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, you get more babes with a guitar case than with a laptop case.) I myself finally found my true peers and life-long friends in Young Scientists, where thinking about non-integral differentials, doing chemical experiments not necessarily (though fairly often anyway) aimed at explosions, or writing Lisp programs were not reasons for pariah-hood. So, from my own personal background I would expect “elite classes” to have social, not just academic, advantages.

I presume this means I'm for “elite classes”, but are we then likely to instead create another social stratum, separated from the rest of the world, creating engineers and scientists without much feeling for the human state of existence? I suspect this is a stereotype promulgated by those who prefer the guitar case-carriers and not even seeing all the nerds around them, the contact surfaces are there.

Much more worrisome are the barriers to properly getting gifted children through school, regardless of their family background. I am at a bit of a loss here. A common demand is that teachers should “see all children” and adapt their teaching to the children's different demands. This is obvious bunk, there are only so many ways (=1 in most cases) that you have time for to explain a concept. When we have one teacher per child, then we can have full adaptivity, but the entire idea of a school presupposes that you teach children in bulk. Having extra staff helping with homework etc can be a step, but at some point teaching must start with the parents. And what do you do with them? I frankly haven't a clue and, of course, people are complicated. Yet we really need to improve schools. Not necessarily for the matter of national competitiveness, curing cancer, or anything like that, but because young bright people deserve to have a chance at learning stuff for their own enjoyment, growing as a person and all that. It's OK if they want to be auto mechanics because they find their joy in muffler belts and suspensions, but if they become auto mechanics because they don't know that there is an alternative, or because they don't dare became anything else, then potential joy is being tossed away.

* It could be argued that I and my siblings also got support from home, but I'd say it was pressure more than suppport, we were expected to do well in school and continue to higher education, so as to get rich and independent (well, we did, I guess), but our studies we had to manage on our own.

† Another possible assumption, not outspoken either, is that sports and music classes will give working class children a chance to get ahead and become sports pros and pop stars and thus rich. Equality accomplished!


Martin said...

Both my kids have learned to read during their daycare years. Both are bilingual. Kid1 was pretty bored during the first three-four school years. Regardless of social engineering, I think there's an argument that if school is going to be mandatory, then at least the bright kids should get enough challenges that they don't spend years being bored.

kai said...

…and presumably “slow” kids must also get appropriate support, can't just leave them in the dust.

I used up all available challenges in second grade, so I was bumped up to third (after discussions with me and my parents). Afterwards I have mixed feelings about it, certainly it was the right thing to do academically, but socially I think it was not so good to be a) perceived to be a teacher's pet and b) the smallest kid in class. Then again, it might have been much the same story had I remained in my original class—I just didn't fit in very well. (Still don't, but I have found friends of my own kind these days.)

Martin said...

Same story with me. Started school a year early for academic reasons, got bullied, nobody can tell after the fact if I'd had a better experience if I'd waited a year before I started school. Certainly the same bullies would have been around school regardless.

We declined an offer to let kid1 start school early.