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High Flyers and Achievement Gaps

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Congress and the Obama administration have been wrestling for a spell on reauthorizing the guts of federal K-12 policy—known in its current iteration as “No Child Left Behind”—and they’ll keep grappling for a while longer.  Of keenly pertinent note regarding that already politically intricate exercise is the recent release of two think tank-affiliated publications which make essential albeit complicating points, not about the status of weak students in the United States (NCLB’s target), but rather strong ones.  Or, more precisely, the two publications focus on strong students who might do even better if not for NCLB.

None of this is to suggest anything fundamentally new when it comes to fears that federal involvement in elementary and secondary education—given its historic preoccupation with equity more than excellence—inevitably leads to leveling, rather than improving, academic achievement.  But authors of the two new publications, while not the least bit unconcerned or un-pained about how poorly many boys and girls are in fact doing, invaluably bring new data and unusually trenchant analysis to the subject. 

Here’s a key passage from “Our Achievement-Gap Mania,” by Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.  You can find his full essay, which appears in the current issue of National Affairs, here.

[H]elping the lowest-achieving students do better is of course a worthy and important    aim.  But the effort to close gaps has hardly been an unmitigated blessing.  In their glib self-confidence, the champions of that effort have refused to confront its costs and unintended consequences, and have been far too quick to silence skeptics by branding them blind defenders of the status quo (if not calling them outright racists). . . . Of particular concern is the way “achievement-gap mania” has forced educators to quietly but systematically shortchange some students in the rush to serve others. 

In regards to this last point, Hess cites a 2008 study in which 60 percent of surveyed teachers reported that struggling students were a “top priority” at their schools, while just 23 percent said the same about “academically advanced students.”  In keeping, when asked which students were most likely to receive one-on-one attention from teachers, 80 percent said struggling students, while only five percent said academically advanced boys and girls.

All of which segues too well to new research by the Washington-based Fordham Institute which finds that “many high-achieving youngsters struggle to maintain their elite performance over the years,” thereby provoking questions about whether “our obsession with closing achievement gaps and ‘leaving no child behind’ [is] coming at the expense of our ‘talented tenth’—and America’s future international competitiveness?”  The title of the study, which Fordham conducted in collaboration with the Northwest Evaluation Association, is “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude?  Performance Trends of Top Students.”  You can find it here.   

Given that significant federal interest in American elementary and secondary education dates back precisely to 1965 and the War on Poverty, it is neither surprising nor inappropriate that Washington’s primary aim, as teased above, has been on helping low-income and disproportionately minority children.  And if Washington is going to remain vigorously “interested” in what goes on in schools across the country, as it doubtless will, maintaining such a relative focus will remain both morally on target as well as (when you get right down to it) politically required.  This is the case even though many Washington-driven policies and approaches, more than unfortunately and by bureaucratic definition, simply won’t work as intended. 

Of course, a corollary of “politically required” in this instance is that any attempts to recalibrate national attention (never mind shifting around public funding) so that it focuses more on the luckiest and most academically competent young people at the possible expense of the least luckiest and scholastically competent will not play well in many quarters and precincts.  And frankly, if and when this criticism comes to be, I not only will professionally grasp why, but I’ll also personally resonate to a good portion of it.

Nevertheless, one of the things I came to better appreciate in recently writing From Family Collapse to America’s Decline is just how economically and otherwise dependent our future is on the most talented among us.  Not just the top tenth as the Fordham report puts it, but rather, on the most talented, industrious, and eventually most innovative top one, two, and three percent of boys and girls—who, in the inevitable and rapid river of time, will grow up.

How to best serve all American kids all along a very lengthy academic continuum?  Let’s just say we haven’t been doing acceptably well with any fraction of them so far.  But we will fail and fall even harder if the kind of message explicit in the paragraph immediately above—a salute to a variant of elitism, when you get right down to it—is instinctually rejected by educators, politicians, and others as undemocratic or worse.   

Mitch Pearlstein is President and Founder of Center of the American Experiment.