No Child Gets Ahead

Sunday, October 12, 2008

In his seminal 1961 book, Excellence, John W. Gardner posed the question, “Can we be equal and excellent too?” We’ve asked it again in 2008. We wondered, in particular, how high-achieving (some say gifted) youngsters are faring academically in the era of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that focuses on boosting the achievement of poor and minority students. The question is more important than ever, considering the extent to which America’s future depends on the brainpower of the country’s best and brightest. If they’re being neglected, we’re all in trouble.

Many of the answers in our new Fordham Institute study aren’t surprising, though they are illuminating. Low-achieving pupils (defined as the 10 percent with the lowest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP]) made big strides from 2000 to 2007, gaining 16 points (on NAEP’s 500-point scale) in fourth-grade reading, 18 in fourth-grade math, and 13 in eighth-grade math. NCLB and state-level efforts to impose standards and accountability on the schools are plainly boosting the kids who need it most—surely a good thing.

Meanwhile, however, the performance of high achievers is unimpressive at best. Their scores haven’t fallen, mind you, but neither are they much on the rise. Their recent trajectory is “languid,” according to Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, the study’s lead analyst. But “languid” doesn’t cut it in today’s competitive world.

Teachers, we learn from a companion survey, feel pressured by No Child Left Behind to focus on the needs of the worst-performing youngsters. Three-fifths of the teachers say that low achievers are a “top priority” in their schools, with fewer than 1 in 4 reporting that high achievers are. Furthermore, a full 40 percent of teachers say that the content and curriculum of honors and accelerated classes are “too often watered down and lacking rigor.”

We also probed teachers’ views of fairness regarding low and high achievers. They were asked, “For the public schools to help the United States live up to its ideals of justice and equality, do you think it’s more important that they (A) focus on raising the achievement of disadvantaged students who are struggling academically or (B) focus equally on all students, regardless of their backgrounds or achievement levels?” Almost 9 out of 10 teachers chose option B.

The performance of high achievers is unimpressive at best. Their scores haven’t fallen, mind you, but neither are they much on the rise. Their recent trajectory is “languid.”

That looks to us like an overwhelming repudiation by teachers of one of NCLB’s core tenets: that “narrowing the achievement gap” should be the nation’s foremost educational objective. And perhaps it explains why the performance of our top students hasn’t outright fallen in recent years: teachers’ personal views have tempered the federal law’s intentions. In other words, teachers haven’t totally yielded to NCLB-style pressure to bring the bottom up because doing so would force them to abandon their own beliefs that all students deserve equal attention in the classroom.

NCLB boosters will likely respond: “That’s a phony choice. We never said to ignore the other students. We just want disadvantaged kids to have their fair share.”

Such a proposal sounds great, but it also underscores Gardner’s question: “Can we be excellent and equal too?” Can our schools focus on the kids at the bottom and the kids at the top and everybody in between? Of course we want that answer to be yes, and perhaps lawmakers will find a technocratic solution to NCLB’s flaws.

Teachers haven’t totally yielded to NCLB-style pressure to bring the bottom students up, because doing so would force them to abandon their own belief that all students deserve equal attention.

But listen again to the teachers, who have limited time and finite resources. Eighty-one percent of teachers say “academically struggling” students are likely to get their one-on-one attention today, versus just 5 percent who say that about “advanced students.”

So let’s bring some honesty to this debate. How should we define “justice” in America’s public education system? Does it mean a single-minded focus on bringing up the performance of low-achieving youngsters, or does it mean helping all students—rich and poor, black and white, low and high achieving—equally? Count us with the teachers on this one. If America is to compete successfully on this shrinking, flattening planet (and, more crassly, if NCLB is to survive politically), then no child, even the swiftest, can have her or his educational needs “left behind.”

Our low performers are starting to make respectable gains. By all means, let’s keep that trend going. But if gains by low achievers are our only measure of success, America faces big challenges in the years ahead.