In Plato's Shadow: Curriculum Differentiation and the Comprehensive American High School

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Southern Queensland]On: 07 October 2014, At: 11:54Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    Educational Studies: A Journalof the American EducationalStudies AssociationPublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/heds20

    In Plato's Shadow: CurriculumDifferentiation and theComprehensive American HighSchoolSuzanne Ricea & Kipton D. Smilieba University of Kansasb Missouri Western State UniversityPublished online: 28 May 2014.

    To cite this article: Suzanne Rice & Kipton D. Smilie (2014) In Plato's Shadow:Curriculum Differentiation and the Comprehensive American High School, EducationalStudies: A Journal of the American Educational Studies Association, 50:3, 231-245,DOI: 10.1080/00131946.2014.907165

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00131946.2014.907165

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  • EDUCATIONAL STUDIES, 50: 231245, 2014Copyright C American Educational Studies AssociationISSN: 0013-1946 print / 1532-6993 onlineDOI: 10.1080/00131946.2014.907165

    In Platos Shadow: CurriculumDifferentiation and the Comprehensive

    American High School

    Suzanne Rice

    University of Kansas

    Kipton D. Smilie

    Missouri Western State University

    This article examines the emergence and persistence of curriculum differentiationin the comprehensive high school. We argue that curriculum differentiation hasroots in Platos Republic, where it is proposed that education (and later work,especially the work of ruling) should be distributed on the basis of ability. Theconcept of ideology is used here to help explain why the practice of curriculumdifferentiation has remained a definingand largely unchallengedcharacteristicof the comprehensive high school. The persistence of curriculum differentiationmatters because it is a means by which different groups of students are given accessto different kinds of knowledge. Not all knowledge is equally valued, and access tocertain kinds of this educational good has implications for young persons well-beingthat extend well beyond their formal schooling.

    One of the most unfortunate of the cognitive dichotomies Ive been discussing, par-ticularly in the lives of young people, has been the distinction between the academicand the vocational. This distinction characterized the high school curriculum formuch of the past century and has defined entire courses of study. . . . It is the aca-demic curriculum, not the vocational, that has gotten identified as the place whereintelligence is manifest. (Rose 2009, 8182)

    Correspondence should be addressed to Suzanne Rice, University of Kansas, Educational Leader-ship and Policy Studies, 421 JRP, 1122 W. Campus Rd., Lawrence, KS 66045. E-mail: srice@ku.edu

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  • 232 RICE AND SMILIE

    The modern comprehensive high school is the most common type of publicsecondary school in the United States. Of the 23,436 public secondary schoolsin the United States as of 2007, there were roughly 15,000 comprehensive highschools. (US Department of Education n.d.). These are schools serving studentseither in grades nine through twelve (14,324) or grades ten through twelve (719),excluding vocational, alternative, and special education schools. Whatever theirdifferences, a feature common to these schools is the differentiated curriculum(Angus and Mirel 1999; Oakes 1985). Although specifics vary between schools(and classrooms within schools), the aptly named practice of curriculum differen-tiation entails treating different groups of students differently in terms of subjectcontent, content delivery, and/or, less frequently, evaluation of learning. In themost general terms, the primary rationale for differentiating curriculum is thatdoing so better meets students academic needs.

    Today, the most common forms of curriculum differentiation are ability group-ing (in elementary schools) and its corollary, tracking, which is widely practiced inmiddle schools and is pervasive in comprehensive high schools. Perhaps the mostfamiliar manifestation of ability grouping is found in elementary-school readinginstruction, for which students in a single classroom are divided into, typically,three groups, based on their perceived reading ability. Tracking entails groupingstudents on a much larger scale and is accomplished in a variety of differentways in different schools. In a typical high school, students will be grouped forrequired courses of study, such as English, math, and history. In each of thesesubjects, there will usually be three groups: honors, college prep, and techni-cal or business. In some schools, students will be divided into ability cohortsand have honors, college prep, or basic courses in all required courses. In otherschools, students are grouped into distinct programs, such as college bound, busi-ness, and vocational/technical. Additional practices and programs associated withcurriculum differentiation include gifted education, special education, vocationaland vocational/technical, business and practical math and English, and advancedplacement, among others. Comprehensive high schools typically include severalsuch practices and programs.

    An array of means is used to deliver differentiated curricula, but typically, thesewill include dividing and grouping students according to particular characteris-tics. The student characteristics upon which grouping decisions are made also varysomewhat in the particulars, but usually these characteristics are intended to repre-sent the construct ability. According to Jeannie Oakes, three considerations almostalways come into play: These three are scores on standardized tests, teacher andcounselor recommendations (including grades), and students and their parentschoices (Oakes 1985, 9).

    Numerous authors have argued persuasively that curriculum differentiationemerged in the United States during the Progressive Era and reflected one strandof the Progressive Movement in education, that strand which sought educational

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  • EDUCATIONAL STUDIES 233

    efficiency above all else (Callahan 1962; Cremin 1964; Krug 1964; Rothstein1994; Tyack 1974; Tyack and Cuban 1995; Tyack and Hansot 1982; Violas 1978).We are in fundamental agreement with historians of education who see curriculumdifferentiation as reflecting the values of the efficiency experts of the ProgressiveEra. What we argue is that curriculum differentiation actually has even deeperroots, in Platos (1974) Republic, where it is proposed that education (and laterwork, especially the work of ruling) should be distributed on the basis of ability.In the United States, this proposal was nurtured and eventually implemented byeducational theorists and policy makers who shaped ideas about schooling ingeneral and the comprehensive high school in particular. For Plato, in-born abilitywas a guiding principle; he was interested in identifying those persons who, bynature, had the potential to rule wisely and justly. It is worth stressing at the outsetthat Plato sought to identify individualswhowere true lovers ofwisdom, regardlessof wealth, status, or even gender. In contrast to Platos ideal, although ability hasalso figured prominently in educational policies and practices in the United States,understandings of this attribute have historically reflected such factors as racism,classism, and sexism. Thus, although we in the United States have shared withPlato a keen interest in abilityand the idea that educational resources such ascurricula ought to be distributed on the basis of abilitythe concept of abilitymeans something different in