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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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15 Practitioner Research as Resistance to the “Normal Curve” - Gerald Campano & Rob Simon 221

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“To create one world that encompasses many worlds”—Zapatista phrase Introduction At a large public elementary school in a midsized city in California, 1% of the student population is designated as “gifted and talented.” Another school, located near a major midwestern university, designates roughly 80% of their stu- dents as “gifted and talented.” Both are neighborhood schools mainly serving the surrounding communities. At the California school, a pressing concern is acquiring more diagnostic resources to test students and, if necessary, to reclas- sify them as learners with “special needs.” At the midwestern school, officials are pressed by parents of the “non-gifted” who are often upset that their children aren’t counted in the ranks of the “gifted.” These two schools and their respective institutional constructions of “gifted and talented” and “special needs” illustrate the power of the normal curve. It is perhaps no surprise that the disparities between the schools map onto deeply entrenched social stratifications. The midwestern school, recognized for its high test scores, serves predominantly middle-class and affluent students, many of whom come from families with ties to the nearby university. The students from the California school are predominantly from poor and working-poor families; many have parents who labor in migratory, factory, or low-wage service jobs. There would be bountiful evidence of students’ gifts and talents in either com- FIFTEEN Practitioner Research as Resistance to the “Normal Curve” Gerald Campano & Rob Simon 222 Gerald Campano & Rob Simon munity, for those who cared to look. Sixth graders...

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