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Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

When your Dropout Nation editor has been brought low by that horrible viral-based disease called Influenza, it not only forces him to spend days sleeping in bed (when not coughing and other disgusting aspects of being sick), but limits him to reading a lot of really smart people writing and saying dumb things. And if you have been reading this publication long enough, there are few things that displease me more than smart people — especially Beltway school reformers — uttering statements that shouldn’t even come from their minds, much less their pens.

So when the Thomas B. Fordham indulged in its obsession over the academic performance of high-achieving students with the latest report it released this week, I expected to chastise them mercilessly. For all of the admirable work Fordham does on school reform issues, it has this weird penchant of thinking that the only kids that seem to matter most are the ones in advanced classes. And I say this as someone who was one of those high-flying students. But save for its grand opening paragraph declaring that the nation needs to “maximize” the abilities of its smartest students, a finale that declares that our future leaders will come from top-performing students (a gross overstatement that fails to remember that many of our leading lights in business and public light, including Abraham Lincoln and Paul Orfalea, the founder of what is now Fedex Office, either didn’t attend school or were the “C” students in class) and and Fordham staffer Janie Scull’s post on Fordham’s Flypaper blog, the report was actually relatively balanced.

But then, I read American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess’ remarks about the study and the bold (in his mind) declaration that it is evidence of an “achievement gap mania” that has siphoned research, policymaking and funding away from addressing other educational issues, and “has pushed all other considerations to the periphery”. Apparently, Hess ignores the decade of research on other issues — from the expansion of school choice, to teacher quality reform efforts, to even the work on the academic prospects of high-achieving students being conducted by Fordham and other outfits – as well as the focus of state and federal policymaking on such matters as bullying and using schools to combat childhood obesity. The very fact that Hess makes such a gross overstatement renders his entire argument useless. For a Beltway reformer, an everyday observer of all that is happening on Capitol Hill, to even say this is just silly on its face.

The more-problematic aspect of Hess’ argument lies with his view (which he expresses both at Flypaper and in a piece appearing today in National Affairs) is that the achievement gap is a matter not worthy of addressing. This sort of backward thinking echo back to the days before the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, when education policymakers and practitioners preferred to ignore the racialist policies that often made American public education a way-station to poverty and prison for poor and minority children. Hess fails to consider that the problem lies not with the focus on closing the achievement gap, but on decades of practices in American public education — from near-lifetime employment and the lack of rigorous evaluation of teachers, to the gamesmanship on academic standards that have been happening long before No Child, to even ability-tracking — that have poorly served all children (including those scoring the highest on test scores).

Hess also attempts to argue that the focus on the achievement gap has “shortchanged many children”. But he can’t prove that in any compelling way. What can be proved is this: American public education does an abysmal job of educating all children.

As the Fordham study notes — and as recent studies from such groups as the Education Trust have shown — wealthy suburban schools are often as abysmal in improving student achievement over time as urban failure mills, while even supposedly high-achieving districts don’t do well in addressing racial and gender achievement gaps. This shouldn’t be shocking. Three decades of student performance on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS has proven, our top-performing students have long been falling behind their peers around the world reading, math and science as their counterparts in other countries. As evidenced in Harvard’s analysis of 2009 PISA data, our top-performing students are outscored by top-performers in 22 other countries; top-performing white students are outperformed by students in 16 nations.

Here’s the thing: When we improve instruction and curricula for our students who have been the most ill-served by American public education — including for young black, white and Latino men — we are improving education for our high-performing students as well. Providing all children with a rigorous, college-preparatory education, and ensuring that all kids are taught by high-quality teachers will not only help struggling students, it will even help high-performers who are just as often not getting the best they (and all children) deserve. More importantly, by addressing achievement gaps, we are also addressing the underlying problems that have made the nation’s education crisis a threat to our immediate- and long-term economic well-being. When we address the low graduation rates and underlying literacy issues facing young men of all socioeconomic backgrounds, we are also helping high-performing young women of all races and economic backgrounds succeed.

The benefits of closing these achievement gaps (as well as ending the penchant among school districts for preventing families from entering their kids into rigorous courses) can be measured. If just a third of the 3,110 residents living in poverty in the South Ozone Park neighborhood of New York City in which I grew up had attended college for at least two years, they would triple their income and contribute at least an additional $20 million a year in income to their neighborhoods (and more if they reach the nation’s median annual income). The benefits not only come in the form of higher incomes, but in spurring economic and social growth that feeds into our nation. And this is not just true for South Ozone Park, but for America as a whole. In a country in which blacks and Latinos will make up the majority of all Americans by mid-century, ignoring the achievement gap is tantamount to condemning America to the economic abyss.

Hess knows this. But sadly, the fact that he holds this view in spite of the evidence isn’t all that surprising.

These days, Hess seems to be more-obsessed with making “bold” and “contrarian” pronouncements that do little to advance much-needed systemic reform than the rigorous, thoughtful scholarship on education issues that once were his stock and trade. His apparent enthusiasm for the No Child backtrack being offered up by Senate Republicans makes one wonder if Hess has lost his appetite for strong systemic reform. He also seems to have a problem with what he calls “self-styled” reformers who have come on to the scene in recent years, essentially arguing that the likes of Steve Brill and Davis Guggenheim (as well as one would suspect, the editor of this publication) have no business offering an opinion, much less pushing for systemic reform. After all, neither Brill nor Guggenheim (or even other reformers, including those in the Parent Power movement) hold ed school degrees, are ensconced in think tanks, or have spent a day in a classroom — even though it doesn’t take the possession of either credential to know that American public education is in crisis.

In the process, Hess has taken on some of the worst qualities of Diane Ravitch and other education traditionalists, from their general disdain for focusing on improving education for poor and minority kids, to their belief in the myth of expertise — that only those who work in education or have ever taught in schools — have any right to say anything about American public education.

The Rick Hess of such seminal texts as Tough Love for Schools has seemingly disappeared into the ether. What is left makes a flu-suffering person like yours truly shake his head wondering “can the real Rick Hess please come back?”