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The Myth of the Normal Curve


Edited By Curt Dudley-Marling and Alex Gurn

It is generally taken for granted that human behavior distributes along the lines of a bell-shaped, normal curve. This idea underpins much educational theory, research, and practice. There is, however, a considerable body of research demonstrating that the normal curve grossly misrepresents the human experience. Yet the acceptance of the normal curve continues to be used to pathologize children and adults with disabilities by positioning them as abnormal. Collectively, the contributors to this volume critique the ideology of the normal curve. Some explicitly challenge the assumptions that underpin the normal curve. Others indirectly critique notions of normality by examining the impact of normal curve thinking on educational policies and practices. Many contributors go beyond critiquing the normal curve to propose alternative ways to imagine human differences. All contributors agree that the hegemony of the normal curve has had a devastating effect on those presumed to live on the boundaries of normal.


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2 Troubling the Foundations of Special Education: Examining the Myth of the Normal Curve - Curt Dudley-Marling & Alex Gurn 9


One of the tasks for developing consciousness of disability issues is the attempt . . . to reverse the hegemony of the normal and to institute alternative ways of thinking about the abnormal. (Davis, 1997, p. 26) The college professor who seeks to create a fair distribution of marks by grad-ing “on the curve,” the Las Vegas gambler who is certain that after a series of losing rolls of the dice, his luck is sure to turn, and the special educator who de- termines that a child is “developmentally delayed” because she scored two stan- dard deviations below the mean on an intelligence test—all share a tacit belief about the order of the universe. Through their respective behaviors, the profes- sor, the gambler, and the special educator express a shared assumption about how the world works; this assumption is most commonly represented by what most of us have been taught to think of as the “normal” curve. We have all been social- ized into the idea that, in the natural order of things, the achievement of students in a college course will cluster around an average grade, a very long losing streak in games of chance is rare (i.e., not normal), and certain constellations of scores on intelligence tests are exceptional. In their controversial text, The Bell Curve, Herrnstein and Murray (1994) refer to the normal curve as “one of nature’s more remarkable uniformities” (p. 557). From this perspective, we can expect most phenomena in nature, including hu- man behavior, to distribute...

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