Our daughter Penny started kindergarten six weeks ago. At the end of her first day of school, she greeted me with, "Mom! I didn't miss you!" She's loved every moment since. I'm sure much of her experience is typical—she walks to school, she works on spelling and reading and basic math concepts, she plays on the playground at recess. And yet Penny's experience also highlights significant changes in American education over the past few decades because Penny has Down syndrome and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and regular therapy sessions. Hers is an "integrated" classroom, with two teachers and a classroom aid. Forty years ago, she might not have been eligible to attend public school at all, much less in a classroom alongside her typically-developing peers.

Penny's academic skills are similar to those of her friends at the moment, but her behavior is different. Her teacher breaks the day down into 10-minute intervals, with a sticker for every stretch of self-control Penny displays, and frequent rewards—"Freeze Dance," a prize from the prize box, the chance to read out loud to the class—throughout the day. It's a lot of work to have Penny in the classroom. And it's a great place for Penny. I hope and pray that it's also a great place for the other kids, that Penny's presence contributes to the learning environment in such a way that she is a blessing to her peers, even as she is blessed by their inclusion of her.

The New York Times recently ran a series of opinion pieces about "differentiated learning," in which teachers modify curriculum so that children of various academic abilities can all work in the same classroom at the same time. Most of the commentators held up differentiated learning as an ideal, but they also expressed concern about how this learning works in practice. Cassandra Davis attributes higher test scores for struggling students to inclusion and differentiated instruction, but Michael Petrilli counters that differentiated learning harms high achievers because teachers pay less attention to the kids who least need their help. Frederick Hess summarizes the disparity: "low-achieving students benefit when placed in mixed-ability classrooms (faring about five percentage points better than those placed in lower-track classes) but high-achievers fared six percentage points worse in such general classes."

My own experience in school couldn't have been more different than Penny's. I skipped kindergarten because I came home crying a few weeks into the year. "When is it going to get harder?" I asked my mother. I went on to excel in school, but I cried again in fourth grade when I received a B on my report card for math class. I remember forgoing social events and working all the time in high school. It wasn't until I was two years into college that it dawned on me that school was about more than my personal academic achievement. As I learned more about Jesus' priorities, I began to see my single-minded devotion to getting good grades as a problem instead of a sign of success. I had learned a lot about literature and calculus and historical events. I could speak Spanish. I would soon graduate from a good college with good grades. Yet I hadn't learned much about serving other people or about understanding the gifts I could receive from others, even, especially, people who weren't as academically inclined as me.

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In Mark 9, and elsewhere within the Gospels, Jesus' disciples remind me of myself. They bicker with each other over who is the greatest, over which one of them will gain the most power and prestige in God's eyes. They are climbing the equivalent of today's corporate ladder, a ladder that now begins in the classroom, with the rungs of academic achievement leading to productive employment leading to success in the eyes of their peers. And then Jesus disrupts their posturing with a child: "He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 'Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.'"

I suppose I could say God disrupted my own posturing with a child too. Having a child with learning disabilities has challenged my notions of the purpose of education and offered me a broader vision of God's kingdom. The potential exists for a similar positive disruption to occur throughout the nation's classrooms as teachers attempt to educate students with diverse needs. Having a child with a disability has opened my eyes to the ways in which my education—filled with enrichment programs, dedicated teachers, and independent studies—was nevertheless an impoverished one. I never learned alongside or from people who don't share my academic inclinations. It took me a long time to recognize that my own academic strengths correspond to weaknesses in my character and to recognize that each of my fellow beings has the ability to teach me, if only I have the eyes to see them as God's beloved.

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The purpose of education, at least from a Christian perspective, is not simply academic achievement or increased GDP. Education is one aspect of spiritual formation, in which we learn how to love and serve one another as Christ has loved us. Classrooms with differentiated learning serve "the least of these," even if they lead to less academic success for peers with higher IQ's. But I would argue that differentiated classrooms serve the high-achievers too. In some ways, classrooms with differentiated learning mirror the kingdom of God, a kingdom in which merit does not gain us a seat at the king's table but rather the invitation of the king to understand ourselves as dependent and vulnerable human beings who are both gifted and loved.