Never let data get in the way of spreading the fiction that focusing on stemming achievement gaps hurts top-performing students. That’s what American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess tried to do (with the help of Mike Petrilli, his counterpart at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) last month in the Washington Post, leading Dropout Nation to Ginzu-knife their argument (as it did Hess’ previous declarations). And now, Sol Stern, the Manhattan Institute education scholar who now spends more time criticizing Michael Bloomberg’s school reform efforts than offering anything thoughtful, attempts to do the same in the pages of City Journal.
Bemoaning the low levels of native American students receiving degrees in engineering, math, science and other fields, he proclaims that the cause of this problem lies with the No Child Left Behind Act and the focus on stemming racial, ethnic, and economic achievement gaps. As far as Stern is concerned, No Child has led to “the corruption of educational standards”, forces districts to focus solely on addressing achievement gaps at the expense of helping top-performing students, and has made the nation less competitive in the global economy.
Stern hardly offers anything in the way of data. Instead what he offers anecdotes, or the intellectual equivalent of eyewitness testimony (empirically unreliable), from those who share his view such as Robert Pondiscio of the Core Knowledge Foundation to make his point. (For good measure, Stern quotes Petrilli too.) For such shoddiness alone, Stern ought to be sent back to City College for remedial courses in rhetoric and debate. The fact that Stern ignores the abysmal practices of how we recruit, train, compensate, and evaluate teachers (which contributes to the inability of the nation’s teaching corps to provide high-quality instruction to all students regardless of initial ability) also makes his entire argument incredible. The unwillingness to realize that not every top-performing student would want to be an engineer or a scientist in the first place — and may choose their own path — doesn’t factor into his thinking. Add in three decades of data from international tests such as PISA and TIMSS that have shown the low performance of American students regardless of ability (along with four decades of criticism over the low quality of reading and math curricula) and suddenly, Stern’s argument breaks apart like the cheapest ceramic-ware falling on soft carpet.
But as Hess has consistently done, Stern ignores the reality that top-performing students have benefited greatly from No Child, along with its focus on holding states and districts accountable for improving achievement of all students regardless of who they are. And the most-objective evidence of this comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Between 1998 (two years after states began participating voluntarily in NAEP) and 2002 (when participation was made mandatory), the average reading score for top-performing fourth-graders (those in the 90th percentile) barely budged, with those students scoring, on average, just 263 points on the reading portion of the exam; average reading scores for those students in the 90th percentile increased by one point between 2002 and 2011 (to 264). When it comes to math, top-performing fourth-graders (along with other peers) still continued their progress. Between 1996 and 2002, average math scores for top-performing fourth-graders increased by seven points (from 316 points to 323); average scores then increased by another six points (from 323 to 329) between 2003 and 2011. These patterns, by the way, also prove true for those students scoring in the 75th percentile on the exam, who would also be considered top-performing students.
Meanwhile the percentage of students reaching proficient and advanced levels in reading and mathematics has actually increased since the passage of No Child. Between 2002 and 2011, the number of fourth-graders reaching such levels increased by four percentage points (from 38 percent to 42 percent), a faster clip than three percentage point increase between 1998 and 2002. Between 2003 and 2011, the percentage of students reaching proficient and advanced levels in math increased by nine percent (from 34 percent to 43 percent), a greater level of growth than between 1996 and 2003.
When one breaks this down by race and ethnicity, the gains are tremendous. The percentage of black fourth-graders reaching proficient and advanced levels in reading increased from 14 percent to 19 percent between 2002 and 2011; that’s greater than the three percentage point increase (from 11 percent to 13 percent) over that period. The average black student in the 90th percentile increased their average scores by five points (from 242 to 247) in that period of time, a faster clip than between 1998 and 2002; while the average score for a black student in the 75th percentile increased by six points between 2002 and 2011 (from 223 to 229), faster than the five percent increase between 1998 and 2002.
Meanwhile the percentage of Latino fourth-graders reaching proficient and advanced levels increased from 17 percent to 21 percent between 2001 and 2011, a greater level of gains than between 1998 and 2007 (from 15 percent to 17 percent). The score for the average Latino fourth-grader in the 90th percentile increased by three points (from 246 to 249) between 2002 and 2011, the same rate as the period between 1998 and 2002; average scale score for a Latino student in the 75th percentile increased by five points between 2002 and 2011 (from 226 to 231), the same level of growth as that between 1998 and 2002.
This strong growth for top-performing students is also borne out when looking at eighth-graders. Between 1998 and 2002, the average reading scale score for students in the 90th percentile actually declined (from 306 points to 305), while . But from 2002 to 2011, the average scale score for those students increased by two points, from 305 to 307. This level of growth is also borne out for students in the 75th percentile. In math, the average score for students in the 90th percentile increased by six points (from 323 to 329) between 2003 and 2011, staying on pace with the seven point increase between 1996 and 2003; for students in the 75th percentile, the average score increased by six points (from 303 points to 309 points) between 2003 and 2011, the same rate of growth as in the period between 1996 and 2003.
The percentage of eighth-graders reaching proficient and advanced levels in reading increased by one percent (from 36 percent to 37 percent) between 2002 and 2011, the same level of increase as in the period between 1998 and 2011. In math, however, the growth was tremendous. Between 2003 and 2011, the number of eighth-graders reaching proficient and advanced levels in math increased by 8 percentage points, from 35 percent to 43 percent; that’s higher than the seven percentage point increase in eighth-graders reaching those levels between 1996 and 2003. (Dropout Nation‘s analysis, by the way, has been borne out by Fordham’s recent report on accountability.)
In essence, contrary to Stern’s contention, No Child has hardly damaged the nation’s competitiveness. If anything, it has been a critical first step in actually transforming American public education. One could actually say that No Child may have actually helped spur reforms in areas such as curricula and teacher quality that have led to more students become top performers. (No Child has also exposed the very gamesmanship on curriculum standards that Stern rightly bemoans, something that has been happening long before its passage.)
Meanwhile Stern clings to a rather romantic ideal of simply focusing on top-performing students that ignores important realities.
The first? That it is unlikely that gifted and talented programs have ever done a great job in the first place. As University of Houston researchers Sai Bui, Steven Craig and Scott Imberman revealed last October in their Education Next report in their report, the progress among top-performing students often stagnates once they are in gifted-and-talented classes. The low quality of teaching and curricula is not only endemic in classes for kids considered too black, too Latino, too poor (and thus, in the minds of those who serve as gatekeepers to gifted and talented courses) too incapable of taking what are supposed to be rigorous courses even in districts in which they make up the majority of enrollment, it is likely to be a problem for students who get into them. After all, those courses aren’t necessarily cordon solitaires from the systemic problems within K-12 education. Given that districts are just beginning to evaluate teachers based on test scores and other objective measures of student achievement, there is no way that one can guarantee that a teacher handling gifted and talented classes can actually do the job.
The second? That attempting to determine who is gifted and talented — especially through IQ tests — doesn’t work out because the labile nature of cognitive abilities. As University of Iowa psychologist David Lohman’ has pointed out, only 25 percent of four year-olds scoring 130 on the Stanford-Binet test used by many schools and districts to determine cognitive ability will do so as 17-year-olds; most first-graders considered gifted don’t remain in such status by the time they reach third grade.Lohman and Katrina Korb (now of the University of Jos in Nigeria) also pointed out in a 2006 report that just 45 percent of first-graders who scored higher than 130 points on Stanford-Binet would have scored at that level on other IQ exams.
Certainly this shouldn’t be a surprise given that cognitive ability is dynamic, as much influenced by the quality of learning environment (especially in school) as it is on natural growth over time. The fact that talent is as much forged by challenge (academically and otherwise) as it is by any innate ability is also part of the reason; after all, it explains why so many once-struggling students such as Fedex Office founder Paul Orfalea (a dyslexic) can turn out to be more successful in the outside world than the A-students who did well in the classroom.
This fact leads to the third reality: How we select who is “gifted and talented” is often based on a gatekeeper system that isn’t based on any objective evidence such as test score growth on standardized tests over time. As former National Math and Science Initiative president Tom Luce noted earlier this year, even with the growth in students taking A.P. courses, far too many black and Latino students are shied away from them. This happens despite the fact that A.P. participation increases their likelihood of kids graduating from high school and completing college. In Atlanta, for example, just 7 percent of black students were taking AP courses during the 2005-2006 school year, while 31 percent of their white high school peers took those courses. As with gifted-and-talented programs in the early grades, poor and minority kids are often denied these opportunities, forcing those parents who are aware of them to fight hard against district bureaucracies that insist that only some kids can learn. This gate-keeping problem is especially troublesome given those who are in charge of making these decisions — including teachers and guidance counselors overseeing gifted and talented programs — often don’t have the subject-matter competency to do so in the first place (and that districts don’t do the kind of objective evaluations needed to make such determinations).
Fourth: The entire concept of gifted and talented that Stern defends is hardly meritorious. Given how we select those students to be put into such programs (save for Stern’s alma mater of Stuyvesant and other schools that base admissions on entrance test scores), it is hardly a meritorious exercise. In fact, as with the comprehensive high school and ability tracking, gifted and talented programs are pernicious legacies of a philosophy dating back to the Progressive Era of the last century, when another generation of educators declared that only some kids (namely white middle class children of that era) were capable of mastering — and thus deserving of — a rigorous high-quality education. This rationing of education (and the underlying bigotries and racialism behind it) is one of the biggest culprits for the nation’s education crisis. It has led to practices that have denied high-quality education to poor and minority children — especially those who are top-performing students — while still providing low-quality instruction and curricula to those students who are considered top-performing (even as its supporters think otherwise).
And finally, given that all children will one day become adults in an increasingly knowledge-based economy in which what one does with their mind will be more important than what they do with their hands, it is critical to provide high-quality teaching and curricula to all children. In an age in which marketers must also be savvy with statistics, and high-paying blue-collar fields such as elevator installers need to be skilled in civil, structural, and electrical engineering, rigorous college-preparatory instruction and high-quality teaching is a necessity for all children — and not just those Stern (wrongly) considers to be the talented tenth.
It is time for Stern and for his fellow-travelers (including Hess) to stop advocating for a failed practice with which no school reformer should be associated. Instead, it is time to provide all children with the high-quality teaching and rigorous college preparatory curricula they need for lifelong success. This can be done while still accommodating both those kids struggling with literacy and numeracy and those kids performing ahead of their current grade. As I mentioned last month, one way to do that is by allowing top-performing students to move up a grade even during the school year so that they can continue to be challenged academically; blended learning programs such as New York’s School of One effort have already shown the effectiveness of such an approach.
Doing this, along with other systemic reforms, would improve the likelihood of all children, regardless of ability, getting the knowledge they need so they can succeed in any form of higher education (be it traditional college, technical school, or apprenticeship) and, ultimately, choose any pathway to economic and social success. Which, in turn, will provide our economy with talented citizens needed to help America remain competitive in the global knowledge-based economy.
*Editor’s Note: The original headline on the piece was amended in order to focus more on the arguments being made by Mr. Stern and by yours’ truly.