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The Myth of the Normal Curve

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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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3 Educational Researchers and the Making of Normal People - Deborah Gallagher 25

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Every kind of measurement results in a statistical distribution. And statistical distributions are the basis for deciding in most cases what is “normal.” (Kauff- man & Hallahan, 2005, Special Education: What It Is and Why We Need It, p. 18) So, why should we discuss statistical distributions? Simply put, statistical distri- butions of achievement or performance are the basis for special education: to understand special education, one must understand statistical distributions. Spe- cial education is designed for and is necessary for individuals whose scores on tests or whose performances on other types of measures are at the extremes— much lower or higher than typical. (Kauffman & Hallahan, 2005, Special Educa- tion: What It Is and Why We Need It, p. 20) By giving so much attention to measurement we risk the criticism that we are overly concerned about numbers and test scores. We do not mean to imply that the essence of a child’s identity can be captured in a single score, or even a set of scores. We do mean to acknowledge, though, that measures, whether they be test scores or observations, are critical to special education because by defini- tion an exceptional learner is one who differs from the norm—the average, the typical. (Kauffman & Hallahan, 2005, Special Education: What It Is and Why We Need It, p. 21) First we make up our claims to truth, then we forget that we made them up, then we forget that we forgot. (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals—trans. Douglas...

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