As long-time readers know, one of my concerns is education for the gifted. I’ll freely admit this is a selfish concern, based on my own experiences in the public schools and those of the Spawn, who I think is frequently underserved by the schools of Mondoville. I don’t particularly blame her teachers for that as much as I blame a larger system that seems to figure the smart kids will just “get by anyway”, which leads them to focus on the kids they see as more in need of assistance.
My concerns are echoed by Sol Stern at City Journal, who argues that the current goals of our educational establishment work to promote low achievers at the expense of students toward the right end of the Bell Curve. To wit, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has in fact marginalized and left behind the gifted kids who are likely to be potential trailblazers in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering, or to excel in the humanities. It has done this by using a limited pool of resources as incentive to raise the floor, and in some ways to lower the ceiling, for educational achievement:
Because the law emphasized mere “proficiency,” rewarding schools for getting their students to achieve that fairly low standard, teachers and administrators had an incentive to boost the test scores of their lowest-performing students but no incentive to improve instruction for their brightest. Robert Pondiscio, communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation and a former New York City Teaching Fellow, describes how the process worked at his South Bronx elementary school. “Eighty percent of the kids in my fifth-grade class were scoring at the two lowest levels on the state reading and math tests,” he recalls. (Each student in New York State receives a test score from 1 to 4, with 1 signifying performance far below grade level, 2 below grade level, 3 grade level, and 4 advanced.) “Early in my teaching career, an assistant principal told me that the kids in my class already scoring a 3 or 4 ‘are not your problem.’ In other words, my goal should be to move the kids scoring at the lower levels up a few points on the scale. I was not specifically ordered to do this, but the message was very clear. My job was to get more kids over the lowest two hurdles, because that’s how the school was rewarded for good performance in the city’s accountability system.”
As a result, Pondiscio says, the few gifted minority students in his class didn’t receive any extra attention—attention that could have given them a better chance to pass the rigorous test for admission to one of the city’s elite specialized science and math high schools. That’s especially sad when you learn that the percentage of black students passing the admissions test for top-ranked Stuyvesant High School has dropped steadily over the past decade. Last year, it fell below 1 percent.
Stern acknowledges that he was a supporter of NCLB, but he has been forced to confront a harsh truth:
As noble as combating “the soft bigotry of low expectations” is, America’s global standing and economic well-being are more likely to be improved by nurturing a culture of academic excellence and creating programs that support elite education in math and the sciences.
NCLB could easily have included reforms to benefit academically gifted students—for example, using financial incentives to encourage states and school districts to expand programs for gifted kids in the early grades and to create more merit-based science and mathematics high schools. The idea of strengthening elite education never entered the NCLB conversation, however[…]
A decade later, despite indications of academic decline among the country’s top students, education policymakers still haven’t expressed much interest in improving instruction for high achievers. Look on the website of the U.S. Department of Education, and you’ll find the usual impossibly optimistic boilerplate about bridging achievement gaps. “Under the Obama administration,” says one report, “education has become an urgent priority. By 2020, we will close the achievement gap so that all students—regardless of race, income, or neighborhood—graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and careers.” Meanwhile, Congress eliminated $7.5 million in funding for the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Program earlier this year.
Stern’s punchline, that “America will gain if school reformers get over the idea that elite education is undemocratic or comes at the expense of the disadvantaged”, is well worth your consideration. Give him a read.