The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 3 - Individual Differences
and the United States Education System
(Part 3 of 4)

Grading and Evaluation

The practices and policies in grading and evaluation reflected of attitudes and beliefs about individual difference in ability among students. At Parks Elementary, the local school board and principal had adopted a policy of leniency in grading and evaluation. The conflict generated over grading policy between teachers and administrators was evident during our interviews and observations. One teacher was protesting what she perceived as the principal's advocacy for lenient grading by giving the same grades she would have given prior to the installation of the new school board and principal. She was worried that it might get her fired, but she could not bring herself to give grades that she believed were undeserved.

The fears of this teacher about her job were not unfounded. The principal clearly was upset with the grading practices of teachers at her school.

I look at all the report cards because I want to know how people (the teachers) come up with grades, and I want to make sure that they (the teachers) don't call the kids scumbags or something.

In contrast, several parents as well as teachers expressed outrage over the lenient grading policy adopted by schools such as King and Parks. For example, the mother of a King student made the following comment about the school's grading and evaluation policy:

Our school is trying to make everyone feel successful, so they make it so that everyone can get a star. But the kids don't feel good about that. They know that they aren't doing anything. So you are getting a lot of this psychobabble from the school about how tender these sixth, seventh and eighth grades are.

The following example illustrated the depth of feeling concerning grading practices. Teachers at Parks Elementary reported being frustrated by grading, particularly when students were performing poorly. A teacher described the implementation of the school's policies:

I assess them based on homework, and I've gotten in trouble for that, because they said that the students cannot control that, that they can't do it at home because their home isn't stable. So now I don't count it at all. One time we had a teacher who gave the kids the grades they deserved. Here, the principal has to look at your grade book and report card. So the teacher submitted hers, and she had all her information backed up, that these kids deserved these grades. The principal made her go back on the day of the report card pick-up and white out these grades and change them. They were very low grades. You'll get reprimanded if you give really low grades, even if the kids deserve them, if the principal feels that they're . . . . This school is about helping their self-esteem. It don't matter if a kid is screaming and cursing in class, or hitting the teacher, that's not important. We don't want to hurt their self-esteem by suspending them. I mean there is nothing wrong with building self-esteem, but they're also not learning responsibility.

Parks Elementary was not unusual in its lenient grading policy. The local school board and administration at King Junior High School in Metro City also favored a lenient approach. In order to de-emphasize grades, the administration at King forbid the posting of an honor roll.

There is no honor roll at King, because they [the administration] are afraid that kids will not feel good about themselves. They don't want good children to stand out. (King mother)

The schoolwide policy also was apparent at the classroom level in the grading practices of individual teachers. During an observation of the eighth-grade math class for advanced students at King Junior High School, the teacher told the entire class:

I am happy to report that 17 out of 25 students are running an A-plus average. Good job! I think more of you can get A-pluses.

This teacher made it possible for students to receive these grades by allowing them to take exams with open books and notes and to resubmit assignments until they answered everything correctly and received the top score of four.

In sum, grading and evaluation were central concerns of parents and teachers with whom we spoke. Some were advocates of lenient grading or grading less focused on test scores, while others argued for tougher standards in grading.

Special Problems in Urban Schools

Teachers in some of the low-achieving schools that we visited did not cite any substantial variation among students within a classroom, but instead reported problems dealing with individual differences that were different from the problems faced at typical schools. Many of these teachers indicated that performance was uniformly low among their students. Instead of teaching to the middle, these teachers indicated that they spent most of their classroom time trying to discipline students or provide emotional support to students. These teachers attributed the generally low ability and interest of students to lack of discipline and to abuse in the home. Absence from school was also a major problem. While these schools are not typical of American schools, the descriptions here reveal some of the problems faced by teachers in the lowest performing urban schools and how these problems supersede the problems of dealing with individual differences.

Poverty was perceived as the primary cause of the special problems of inner-city schools. This was true across research locations. At West High School, a teacher estimated that 40 percent of the students were in families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children and a large fraction of the remaining 60 percent were also in need of assistance but were not receiving it because of lack of documentation about citizenship (a number are in the country illegally).

Low Attendance

Low attendance was a problem cited by educators in inner-city schools. The principal of South Central said that attendance was the main problem facing the school:

Fifteen students will show up 1 day. A different 10 and the same 5 may show up the next day. And a completely different 15 will show up the next. This makes instruction very difficult, and it is the number one complaint of teachers at South Central.

A math teacher at South Central Vocational High School elaborated on how instruction is slowed down by poor attendance:

I have only covered three chapters in 8 months. The kids are real slow in learning. I would expect that average kids would be able to do five or six problems at home so I would only have to spend a week on them. With these students, I have to spend a month. I have to repeat material often because different students attend each day.


The lack of discipline in the home was a major concern of teachers in inner-city schools and a theme that came up again and again in our research. A Park Elementary fourth-grade teacher said that he had kids whose immigrant parents had never been to school themselves, so he wondered if they knew how to prepare their kids for school and tell them what to expect and how to behave. One science teacher at Metropolitan School in Metro City linked family disintegration in the inner city to the discipline problems she was having with her students. This teacher stated her belief that many inner-city parents do not teach their children how to sit still in class and listen to the teacher's instructions. Hence, she feels that she must spend most of her time disciplining students rather than teaching them.

The following exchange between this science teacher and a student occurred shortly after an interview. The observation involved an honors student in a science class at Metropolitan School.

A student who wants to work with Jeff on a project for class is assigned by the teacher to another student named Jose. The student begins working with Jeff anyway.

Teacher: "Not with Jeff. Find someone else."

Student: "What difference does it make?"

Teacher: "It makes a difference to me. Why don't you take Jose."

Student [walking away]: "Cause I don't want to."

Teacher: "Excuse me? Why don't you take Jose."

Turning to the researcher, the teacher explained, "This is what I deal with every day, a total lack of respect and discipline."

One way that this teacher dealt with such disruptive classrooms is through tough standards of behavior. Metropolitan School supported teachers such as this one in their efforts to maintain discipline in the classroom. In fact, a mother had her daughter transferred to Metropolitan School because of its reputation for discipline:

My daughter was really getting out of control. So what I was trying to do was to talk to youth officers and social workers to try to keep from losing my daughter to the streets. Because she tried to come in when she felt like it, and I don't want her coming in like that. If you don't rule your kids, they gonna rule you. They gonna disrespect you.

Discipline was also emphasized at Hamilton High School, a predominantly upper-middle-class high school. However, the large working class minority population tended to be the target of the disciplinary measures. One such measure was the school detention center. Students at Hamilton High School who had misbehaved in class were sent to a detention center in the school. On any given day a dozen or so students were detained at the center. The detention center was meant to be an austere experience, and during the winter months, the large classroom was heated by a tiny space heater. Students had to wear jackets to keep warm.

Other Concerns and Issues

Although the lack of discipline among students was considered to be a major problem in inner-city schools, many educators indicated that physical and sexual abuse contributed to far more serious and irreparable damage to the academic achievement of some students in these schools. According to the principal of South Central Vocational High School, many of the behavioral and learning problems of some of the students at the school are the direct result of physical and sexual abuse by adults at home and, in certain cases, even at school.

Educators and administrators at schools located in impoverished areas also referred to the constraints placed upon instruction of high student mobility, a feature typical of poor communities. It was not uncommon for schools in the inner city to have more than half of the student body change every year. Schools where there was high student mobility needed to test large numbers of students each year if enrollment in classes at different levels was based on student mastery of the subject. Complicating the problem was the fact that many students moved into the school district after the beginning of the school year. Thus, testing for placement into tracked courses created an additional burden for financially strapped inner-city schools. Furthermore, since the curriculum differed from school to school, students who moved frequently were at a disadvantage in gaining admission to high-level academic courses.

At West Middle School in West City, a math teacher indicated that only 20 percent of her students the previous year completed the entire year. Many of her students move back and forth between Mexico and the United States move for economic reasons. Explained the teacher:

I have some kids who are coming who are recent arrivals. I have a girl who sits here who came from Mexico a few months ago, and she is functioning at a fifth-grade level in Spanish. She is advanced. She knows fractions, everything. And she has a great vocabulary and grammar in Spanish. But she has no English. Whereas, I also have a kid who just arrived from a small town in Mexico where he never attended school. All these levels I have here.


In the inner-city schools that we visited, teachers reported great difficulty in managing ability differences among students within classrooms. These teachers suggested that the preponderance of social problems in the inner city contributed to the diversity in levels of ability and hindered their ability to teach the curriculum in a way that would reach and benefit all their students.

Gender Equity in Math and Science

Gender difference is an area where individual differences in ability and achievement have often been observed in the United States. Males have traditionally taken more math and science courses than females and are overrepresented in occupations that require advanced knowledge of math and science. In spite of this pattern, many of the respondents stated that there was no gap between girls and boys in math and science achievement. Science and math teachers, on the other hand, did perceive significant gender-equity problems and they talked freely with us about their concerns.

We observed one type of gender gap in math and science achievement at a number of schools in the numbers of students taking advanced courses in these subjects. Females were underrepresented in higher-level math and science courses at Hamilton High School. A female science teacher at Hamilton High School explained what she believes is the typical pattern of gender inequality in high schools throughout Metro City: "AP (advanced placement) is the creme de la creme. But a lot of girls don't continue on in AP, so I've got concerns about that, about our gender-equity standards." The higher-level math and science classes at Springdale High School in a middle-class area of the city were also predominantly male.

One explanation given by teachers for the smaller number of girls in upper-level math and science courses was that male teachers are far more numerous in these courses and therefore girls are less comfortable taking these courses. Role models are fewer for females than for males in science and math. In fact, one teacher indicated that until 4 or 5 years earlier, no women had taught AP science courses at Hamilton High School, although at the time two women were teaching teach biology, one of whom taught advanced-placement classes.

Although at the time a great deal of attention was paid to the gender bias among teachers, gender bias has a long history, as the following quote by the above teacher underscores:

In fact, when I first started teaching, the man who had taught chemistry and physics for 18 years gave the girls 20 extra points at the beginning of the semester, like a handicap. We've come a long way. And that was only 20 years ago; that was in 1977. We are not even talking the 1960's here. But he thought girls were at a disadvantage, so he gave them extra points.

There were also teachers who did not perceive gender-equity problems. A male math teacher at Hamilton Township High School had this response when asked about the existence of a gender gap in math and science at the school:

No, you know that comes and goes. This year I have more males than females in my advanced calculus course, and it makes me real nervous. But that is generally not the case. We have had more girls in the past than boys. I don't think that that is a problem. Now, I'm a male teacher and I may be a dreamer. I don't perceive this to be a problem, but another person might.

In accordance with this teacher's assessment, a female high school student at Springdale High School, located in a suburb of Metro City, said that girls were not discouraged from taking advanced classes in math and science. A female science teacher at the same school also indicated that girls are not discouraged from science and, in her opinion, some of the girls are the best students in the advanced-placement courses.

Based on her experiences with her children, a mother of six children who attended Springdale High School, said that she did not observe any gender discrimination:

One of my daughters did very well in math, so she went on to calculus and stuff. The others took honors in all the sciences, but that wasn't the big interest for them. But I have never heard them say that they felt they were outclassed, or that boys were shining in the classes. They could hold their own. I haven't heard that to be a problem here. I mean it's something you read in the papers a lot, but I don't hear it from my kids.

When asked if parents in the Rolling Hills district have different expectations for girls and boys, a female math teacher at Vanderbilt Middle School replied:

I actually don't see that, but among the 35 students, who were selected for the gifted math program in the 8th grade, none were female. I was heartbroken to see that. Three girls made the cutoff but chose not to go to the program, because they would miss the activities at the school before 9:30 a.m. As for parents' expectations for boys and girls, I don't see any differences. I probably get an equal amount of phone calls for boys and girls.

In general, we observed a sizable gender gap in the advanced-level math and science courses at the high schools we visited. However, respondents differed in the extent to which this gender gap was perceived to be a problem. Some parents and educators believed that gender discrimination has lessened over the past few decades, and few suggested that girls were actively discouraged from seeking careers in advanced math and science.

Ethnicity and Access to Equal Education

Many of the parents and educators whom we interviewed indicated that the racial gap in achievement in their communities was wide and a source of great friction and concern. In fact, the gap between racial groups in academic achievement was a common theme in our discussions about individual differences, and, in spite of its sensitivity; many talked frankly with us about this issue. At several schools, administrators indicated that there was a difference in achievement in math and science among racial groups.

In all of the integrated schools that we visited, minorities were underrepresented in high-level math and science courses. At King Middle School, where a majority of students were African-American, one observer counted only two African-American students in the two high-level math classes for eighth-grade students. Similar proportions were reported in other integrated schools in all three research sites.

Race and Tracking

The existence of racial differences in academic achievement was perceived by some respondents as a source of tension in schools with heterogeneous student bodies. One perceived source of tension between administrators and minority parents was tracking practices, which some parents viewed as discriminatory. The comments of a math teacher at Hamilton High School illustrate this point:

There is certainly a tension in the community over the gap between the low-ability and high-ability students, which tends to fall along racial lines, and everyone knows it. It's glaringly obvious to everybody. I have 1 minority kid of my 20 calculus kids, and my low-ability classes are primarily black. Everyone knows that. And that's a constant source of pain, I think, for all of us. And we try to do more. We have special programs to ameliorate that. We don't do very well. We do it in fits and starts and it is not working. It's awfully tough.

According to an administrator, one proposed solution to racial disparity in academic achievement has been the reduction of high-level courses in math and science. One example is King Middle School, which eliminated high-level courses in all subjects, except math. According to two parents, the administration at King, led by an African-American educator opposed to tracking, was trying to reduce the numbers of students in the high-level math class.

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure was seen by teachers and parents as a factor in creating individual differences in academic achievement, particularly the differences among racial and ethnic groups. Compared to schools in affluent communities, there were more reports of negative peer pressure and labeling of students who performed well academically in inner-city schools. Parents, teachers, and students reported that negative peer pressure was applied to such students. For example, an African-American boy in the honors math course at King reported being ostracized by his African-American friends for `acting white.'

Several parents and educators talked about similar negative peer pressure against high-achieving African-American students. One high school math teacher at Hamilton High School made the following observation:

There is a pretty strong pressure by all accounts for minority kids in high-ability classes. There are kids that are telling them that they are acting white. That goes on a lot.

An African-American mother also recognized the existence of such peer pressure, since her son was the only African-American male in the accelerated math class at King. Her son also confirmed that fellow African-American students chided him by calling him a "smart white boy." "It's really bad," he said, "when I don't let my basketball friends copy off of my homework." The situation with his friends bothered him a lot, the student confessed, but he added, he still wanted to do well in school and make something of himself.

At East Middle School in East City, a teacher explained how she believed that one African-American student in her class was deliberately underachieving so that he would not alienate his peers:

I have a student who could have gone into my second-period class very easily and done the work. But because he is in an afternoon class and he is with some other black students, he tends to do less, much less than he is capable of doing. He doesn't want to do better than the other black students in that class.

Peer pressure at Uptown High School. Peer pressure against academic performance was a frequent topic of discussion during our interviews at Uptown High School. The school is located in one of the poorest areas in Metro City and is an ethnically diverse urban school, a port of entry for many recent immigrants to the Metro City area. Uptown prided itself on having students from over 40 countries, but the majority were African-Americans, Hispanics, and Vietnamese.

Academic achievement followed racial and ethnic lines. The children of recent immigrants from Vietnam, Russia, and India performed better in classes at Uptown High than those from other racial and ethnic groups. Vietnamese students, in particular, performed well. In fact, Vietnamese students comprised most of the students taking advanced-placement chemistry and calculus classes and the honor roll at Uptown High contained mostly Vietnamese surnames.

Although Vietnamese students struggled in other subjects that were more focused on English language skills, according to the college counselor at Uptown High, the typically scored above the 95th percentile in math and science. But they scored below the 25th in English on the college entrance examinations. Incidentally, the counselor added that these low English scores were not an obstacle to Vietnamese students being accepted at major national universities.

In interviews with students and teachers, we were told that Vietnamese students at Uptown, along with students from India, were referred to by other students as "geeks", a term similar to "bookworm" but with a more derogatory connotation.

A computer-science teacher at Uptown High explained this pattern:

Here at Uptown, it is the Asian and Indian kids who get labeled as `geeks'. I guess it is because they are more willing to let it happen. The kid who is born in the United States has figured out by the time he gets to high school how to avoid that label, to look disinterested, to look like "I don't care even if I really do." One of the things they say that is too bad that happens to our immigrant kids is that they do get Americanized, so they figure out that if you want to avoid getting that label, don't raise your hand, or if the teacher says something good about you, try to figure out a way to make her take it back.

According to one student, any sign of positive commitment to school can bring on the "geek" label at Uptown. A Filipino girl in her senior year at Uptown High indicated that any student taking calculus in the 12th grade is labeled as a "nerd" and even average students who show an interest in school are given the undesirable label by some students.

Although she was not in the calculus class and in fact was taking vocational math, this Asian American student said that she was also labeled a "nerd" because she "does her work." Her resistance to the peer pressure was clear. She said, "I take being called a nerd as a compliment." These observations suggest that even average students at Uptown who exhibit positive commitment to school are negatively labeled by peers.

Peer pressure in the suburbs. While the labeling of students as "nerds" and "geeks" was a common theme at Uptown High School, an inner-city high school, references to these phenomena were less frequent at the suburban high schools we visited. The high-achieving students we interviewed at Hamilton High School reported being ignored by lower-achieving students. The same was true at other suburban schools, such as Springdale High School.

However, at Vanderbilt Middle School, located in the affluent community of Rolling Hills, a high-achieving student reported his group of academically-oriented friends felt negative peer pressure. "They pick on us, call us nerds and stuff, but we don't care, we really don't care," he said. "They used to tell this joke about me," he continued. "What's the difference between Rob and a dictionary? Rob walks, that's the difference."

On the other hand, students who were performing at average levels at Vanderbilt Middle School reported pressure from their peers to do well academically. This was not reported at any of the other schools in the sample. A female student with an average academic record at Vanderbilt explained how her friends were thinking about high school classes: "Most of my friends want to be in the top level or the second from top, because it will be good for them to be challenged."

While academic work was valued in affluent communities, such as Rolling Hills, athletic ability might have been more highly prized at this school and others, as one mother living in Lakeside suggested:

The greatest value, even in this community, is placed on sports. You see tremendous competition and there are children in this town, fourth-graders, who are on the ice practicing hockey at six in the morning. Even at this young age, that's how the kids are separated—by sports achievement.

This mother added that the push for athletics does not come from the schools but from the parents. In fact, many of the sports programs in Lakeside are community-based programs, including hockey, baseball, and softball. Consequently, peer pressure among students against academic performance and for athletic performance probably has its origins in the values of the community's adults.

In sum, peer pressure among students discouraging high academic performance was a frequent topic of discussion in the schools we visited. Frequently, academically serious students were called "geeks" or "nerds." Students in affluent communities also reported peer pressure to do well academically. It may be that the greater opportunities for college available to these high-achieving students positively influence students' attitudes toward school in affluent communities. There is also evidence that athletics, and not school, are the most highly valued activity among many adults and students in all communities.

Race and Vocational Education

The relationship of race and tracking is also apparent in tracking patterns at the high school level. Tracking in high school emphasizes preparation for work or college, and in most schools we visited, racial minorities were disproportionately represented in vocational programs. Consequently, vocational programs have come under some criticism and scrutiny in these communities.

Vocational education at Hamilton High School. One way that schools have dealt with the criticism of vocational programs has been to emphasize that these programs do not preclude advancement to college. At Hamilton High School, for instance, a school with equal numbers of African-Americans and whites, outside consultants had been hired to help to redesign the vocational arts program in accord with this new philosophy of providing college preparation for all students. The redesigned vocational arts programs were based on the popular notion of career pathways.

The traditional vocational subjects had been reorganized under career pathways into broad occupational categories, such as health care, electronics, computers, and culinary arts. Each career pathway represented a range of occupations, some requiring only a high school education and some requiring advanced degrees. For example, careers dealing with computers included training for entry-level jobs in skilled trades, such as computer repair, as well as preparation for computer-science programs in college. To achieve these dual ends, each career pathway included a mix of vocational and academic courses.

In part to minimize the racial bias of the vocational program, all students were required to take vocational courses at Hamilton, regardless of post-high-school plans. This policy created some rather unusual course offerings. For example, one course that was popular among college-bound students, was "Honors Gourmet Cooking." Students in this course, who received honors credit, spent an entire semester learning how to prepare different ethnic foods. Students are also required to submit a detailed business proposal for a restaurant they would like to open. This purportedly was the academic component of the course. One student who was admitted to an expensive, private university proposed opening a restaurant in the city where he would be going to school.

Vocational education at Uptown High School. The vocational programs at Uptown High School were more traditional than those offered at Hamilton High School. There were three tracks of courses at Uptown High School. Students could select the college preparatory, general, or vocational track. The vocational programs included metal working, business, computers, carpentry, and auto repair and had not been organized into career pathways. However, the school was having discussions about reorganizing the vocational programs along the career pathways system. The vocational programs at Uptown enrolled about one-third of the student body.

In spite of the clear job-training component of the vocational programs, most school personnel at Uptown emphasized that the vocational programs did not preclude enrollment in college. The academic counselor at Uptown emphatically stated that college is an option for all students at Uptown, regardless of their placement in any particular track.

The unpopularity of classes in the vocational track at Uptown may have had other roots than restriction of college opportunities. According to a vocational teacher, the vocational programs at Uptown High were not popular with students, because students know they have to work harder in vocational courses than in regular courses.

Since most of the students at Uptown were poor minority students, the school was in fact working to increase the job-training component. The hope was that a clear relation between the skills learned in vocational courses and those needed in the workplace would increase enrollment in the vocational program.

Vocational education at South Central Vocational High School. South Central Vocational High School was the only vocational high school in the sample. Even so, efforts were made to insure that some students at the school would have the opportunity to attend college.

Educators at South Central Vocational High School suggested that students from disadvantaged families need more vocational education programs, not fewer. A vocational teacher at South Central presented the problems facing students from schools like his when they are confronted with the need to find jobs with their limited academic skills:

We talk about Shakespeare, but these kids can't even fill out an application. Is there any Shakespeare on here? [Waving a job application] No. It's asking you for three references. Not just your neighbor next door. It's gonna ask for your phone number, zip code, and address. Zip code is a part of that. Do you have your social security card? These are real things that these kids should be taught how to do. Macbeth? Wonderful! But when you are hungry, that ain't gonna do you one bit of good. We need that Amoco lady who sits there and pushes the button. If you give her ten dollars, she punches in the numbers and knows how much to give you back. And we need that lottery lady who spits out that lottery ticket. These people are trained. You have to have a skill.

This vocational teacher at South Central continued to convey the necessity of providing concrete job skills for students living in the inner city. Individual differences for this educator centered on providing skills that would get her students jobs:

The first thing they want to know is, can you operate a computer. They could care less about your diploma. When we don't equip students, we set them up to fail. [imitating a white man's voice] "So what experience do you have?" [black man's voice] "None." [white man's voice] "Next."

The teacher continued:

Black people are wrapped around the block looking for jobs. Not that some of them wouldn't be good workers, but we don't prepare them. I tell my youngest son, "Don't tell me nothing about a diploma, I want you to be able to do something." If I see a carpenter on the street, I say, "Can I send my son here to watch you work?" It's exposure. You have got to put these kids somewhere where they can learn a skill or trade. Ford Motor Company. The hospital. Take these kids three times a week. Every high school in the city. There are enough hospitals and nursing homes in the city to give these students experience. We bring computers into the schools. Put the kids where the computers are going to be used. Because they are in competition. I tell these kids, "You are in competition with other kids from other schools and not only are you in competition with other kids, you are in competition with their parents." They'll tell you, "Last year my cousin graduated and he still ain't got a job." He's telling you something. He doesn't know what, but he is telling you something.

Money for vocational training is hard to come by at a school like South Central Vocational High School, in part because of the focus on academics and not job skills. A vocational teacher at South Central talked about her need to find $20,000 to renovate the vocational lab in a way that would help her work with students who have limited academic skills, such as the ones attending South Central. However, she acknowledged that there was no money in the budget for such a renovation, and she felt she was unlikely ever to get that money. In fact, the local paper listed South Central as one of five schools slated for closing the following fall.


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