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The Importance of Average: Playing the Game of School to Increase Success and Achievement

reviewed by Sharon L. Nichols - December 21, 2010

coverTitle: The Importance of Average: Playing the Game of School to Increase Success and Achievement
Author(s): Stephen Farenga
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0742570126, Pages: 224, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

In The Importance of Average, authors Farenga, Ness, Johnson, and Johnson argue that “average” students have been consistently neglected by educational policies that provide for the highest and lowest achieving students. Average students, they note, are virtually never eligible for special programs or services made available to gifted or learning disabled students. This state of affairs puts those students in the middle at the highest risk of being either over-challenged or under-challenged by a curriculum that almost always is adjusted for higher or lower achievers. Although educational leaders have long worried about how best to educate students who vary widely in ability, motivation, and skill, the authors of Average have reignited these concerns by asking readers not to worry about the high or low achievers, as is commonly the case when it comes to ability differences, but by asking readers to worry about all of those students in the middle.

In Average, Farenga, Ness, Johnson, and Johnson raise many important questions about how we currently do educate our students and provide some thoughts on how we should educate our students. For the parent or concerned citizen, the book is an accessible read with two meaningful contributions. First, the book provides a reasonable overview of the historical and current use of intelligence tests (and other forms of tests) that have influenced some of the current practices that seemingly disregard the “average” ability student. Second, and perhaps more noteworthy, the book provides a range of meaningful advice on how to encourage student effort and success in general, and as it relates to reading (Chapter 5), math (Chapter 6), science (Chapter 7), and social studies (Chapter 8) achievement. However, the authors’ somewhat shallow and disconnected review of varied topics associated with American treatment of students according to ability might leave the academic and the policymaker a bit disappointed.

The basic premise of the book is to argue that very high and very low ability students (i.e., those considered gifted and talented and those considered learning disabled or eligible for any other type of special service) have historically received a greater proportion of funding and therefore services and attention in schools. This state of affairs means that the rest of the students, the “average” ones who do not qualify for one of these labels have chronically been at an educational disadvantage. For example, policies that provide funding for low achieving students result in the dilution of the curriculum for the more advanced, middle ability students. They note, “the harm is that average students are succeeding with little effort and few challenges” (p. xxiii). By contrast, curricula geared towards the gifted and talented students might be out of reach, causing middle ability students to give up more quickly.

Following this basic set up in the preface and Chapter 1, the authors in Chapter 2 turn to the topic of how and why average students are neglected. They begin by briefly deconstructing cultural meanings of smart and average, challenging the reader to become better sensitized to the underlying judgments often made when these labels are cast. Next, they very briefly examine the No Child Left Behind Act and how the use of high-stakes tests directly undermines average student achievement. They discuss the use of rubrics, the power of teachers, and the use of differentiated instruction, noting that attending to the wide array of students’ ability differences in a single classroom is time consuming and riddled with potential problems such as what to do with students who finish fast versus students who need more time.

Although there are some interesting observations made throughout this chapter, I was left wanting more. I wanted more clarification, more precision, more depth to each of the topics the authors raised. For example, they note that the term “average” has longstanding pejorative connotations that undermine the way in which we serve students who might be considered “average.” They continue to mention how this negativity leads to their neglect:

We have found that students who are not labeled above average at the upper end or below average at the lower end are generally lumped together into one large unit and essentially ignored. They are ignored by the popular media. They are ignored by the academic community. They are ignored by our political leaders, public policy specialists, and special interest lobbyists who hold the keys to the coffers that have been earmarked for highly specified groups, such as those labeled “learning disabled” or “gifted.” (p. 13)

In making these accusations, the authors ignore fundamental complexities in how average is defined as they generalize across various entities, each of which has different interests and priorities.

Chapter 3 is perhaps one of the more important chapters of the book with its focus on conceptions of intelligence. Divided into three main sections, the authors begin by discussing some of the more “traditional” approaches to intelligence (IQ testing). Next, they look at Piaget and Vygotsky as cognitive theorists with differing conceptions of what it means to be smart as well as to “get” smart. Lastly, they look at more recent views of intelligence, focusing on the work of Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg. It is a useful chapter that highlights the ongoing debates associated with what it means to be smart; however, by its conclusion it isn’t wholly clear what the authors want the reader to gain. Should we fully abandon IQ testing? Should we implement it more aggressively?

Any shortcomings of Chapters 1-3 are redeemed in Chapter 4 in which the authors focus on the role of student motivation and its relationship to ability. They adeptly weave concepts from several motivational perspectives (attribution theory, goal theory, intrinsic/extrinsic, self-determination, and intelligence-related beliefs) to emphasize that student success is not predetermined at birth (as might be suggested by the IQ testing movement), but rather is malleable and intimately connected to students’ beliefs about themselves and/or the task at hand. The authors point out how teacher expectations and meaningful encouragement and feedback from parents are key components for students’ ongoing persistence in school. They conclude that for our “average” students to succeed, parents and their teachers must be especially cognizant of these motivational variables in order to influence success over time.

Throughout the book, I found myself consistently searching for the authors’ position on the issues they raised. As they discussed the debates of how “smart” and “ability” are defined, I wanted to know what solutions they proposed. As they discussed the importance of encouraging students to see ability as incremental, and attributions as internal, I wondered, do the authors “buy in” to notions of average? The first statement of the last chapter addressed my perplexity. “We conclude our book by arguing that there is no such thing as average intelligence” (p. 161). They continue,

Although Psychometricians have come up with a theoretical construct of average intelligence and have identified possible ways of measuring it, the level of intellectual diversity among those students who are classified as such is so overwhelming that it would simply be a pretense to come up with such an over generalization. (p. 161)  

Thus, the authors, although late in the book, finally assert their position that “average” is a socially constructed label that serves to undermine education of all students.

In the end, I thought that The Importance of Average was a useful read provoking some interesting insights into America’s cultural obsession with intelligence labeling and rank ordering (Covington & Omelich, 1979). I especially enjoyed the discussion of motivation and the point that effort and ability are often confounded. Those of us in the field of motivation have long understood that effort is a “double edged sword,” and it is a useful reminder to parents about how best to encourage their children to persist in the face of difficulty.


Covington, M. V., & Omelich, C. L. (1979). Effort: The double-edged sword in school achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71I, 169-182.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 21, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16267, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 3:01:06 AM

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About the Author
  • Sharon Nichols
    University of Texas at San Antonio
    E-mail Author
    SHARON L. NICHOLS is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She is the past chair of the Adolescence and Youth Development Special Interest Group of AERA and is coauthor of two books including Collateral damage: How high-stakes testing corrupts America’s schools (with D. C. Berliner, Harvard Education Press, 2007) and America’s teenagers—myths and realities: Media images, schooling and the social costs of careless indifference (with T. L. Good, Erlbaum, 2004). Her current work focuses on the impact of test-based accountability on adolescent motivation and development.
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