Tough Choices

The new Fordham Foundation report on high-achieving students is causing a lot of chatter. Punchline: They are not excelling under No Child Left Behind. Hard to miss what an asymmetric debate this is. On one hand you have Checker Finn saying that NCLB is dumbing things down and analogizing it to a “three foot hurdle” while on the other you have Charles Murray and folks like Richard Rothstein agreeing and deriding it as a hopelessly utopian scheme because most kids can’t get over such a hurdle anyway.

One reason the debate still has a “say anything” quality to it is that here is a still a great deal of misunderstanding about how the No Child law’s mechanics actually work. But that’s a basically technical problem and here’s a primer on that.

But there is also a belief that schools can do everything at once: That they can close achievement gaps, raise overall achievement, stretch high performing students and help struggling ones all at the same time. As Rick Hess and I wrote in PDK in 2007 all of these pressures create an untenable situation for educators. And increasingly there is a belief that if we just had the right way of measuring we’d be able to do it all. If I had a dollar for each time I hear someone say that “we can do both” I’d be blogging from my cabin in Montana or Key West…

Instead, choices do have to be made. It doesn’t mean that we throw different groups of student under the bus, but any accountability system that holds people accountable for everything holds them accountable for nothing. So choices have to be made about emphasis. And considering the yawning achievement gaps, graduation rate gaps, and outcome gaps that separate poor and minority students from other students, that’s where I’d argue the emphasis should be placed. And, within those groups of students on the wrong end of the achievement gap are plenty who with better schools would also be recognized as gifted.

There are certainly steps that policymakers can take to help lessen the zero-sum nature of these choices. They can, for instance, also reward schools that do a great job with high achieving students as well as closing gaps (something they can do under No Child Left Behind now but few do in a meaningful way). Or, we can think about various non-regulatory accountability strategies, for instance giving parents more choices within the public system, to create some countervailing forces. And of course, states and localities should invest in programs for gifted kids and ways to stretch them.

But ultimately you have to put the accountability “load” somewhere. In other words someone has to be accountable for some specific outcomes for kids at some point or you have a system that does, as Congressman George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee is fond of saying, just lead to kids and schools always sort of “getting there” but never actually arriving.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can’t measure better than we do today – and a quiet success story of the last 7 years is just how much better the data infrastructure in states is than it was when No Child Left Behind was first passed. We can, thankfully, do a lot more now than in 2001. But it does mean that we need to separate the technical aspects of measuring from the hard choices that have to be made. In other words, this is as much a political problem as a technical one, if not much more so. And the evidence is pretty compelling that there is not an enormous appetite out there to do that and in fact powerful forces working against real action on this front. It’s part of what leads to the debate about whether or not schools are part of the problem here.

So while I’m certainly not thrilled at what Fordham is finding (although anyone who has looked at a lot of school or state data can’t be too surprised, evidence of a ceiling effect has been evident for some time) some realism is necessary here. As Rick and I (and we disagree on the policy remedies here) wrote:

…would-be reformers routinely ignore or forget this fundamental truth, inviting confusion, mixed messages, and facile talk. The ugly truth is that we cannot do everything; this means we must choose what we can and should do at a given time. It means accepting disagreement and abandoning the tempting dream that we might reach consensus on what needs to be done if only good-hearted souls would examine the right data. And it means acknowledging that every policy decision will yield both winners and losers. What we need in 2007, 2008, and beyond is not bland reassurance or misguided efforts to paper over real divides, but honest and informed debate about whose needs take precedence at a given moment, what to do about it today, and what to leave for tomorrow.

9 thoughts on “Tough Choices

  1. Anonymous

    This reports makes no sense. It says that the nation’s most capable students aren’t making GAINS as big as the low achieving students. Gee. You’re kidding. You mean that high-achieving first graders can’t do calculus?

    In order to show gains on these tests, students must know things. And there simply isn’t enough time in a day to cram enough knowledge into high achieving students to make gains equal to that of low achieving kids. I mean, these high achievers already have the capacity to know a lot. Once they are taught all that, then they can make gains.

    With low achievers, there’s simply more room for them to grow. Now that teachers are paying attention to them, rather than ignoring them, they are learning.

    This either/or sense of education is a smokescreen. It’s not either or. There’s room for learning and instruction for all students. Please don’t buy into the rhetoric. It’s incorrect.

    Here’s something: how come the nation’s most elite colleges are suddenly flooded with more qualified applicants than ever? How does this square with the claims by Fordham?

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not a lover of the status quo by any means. Not at all. But Fordham, usually an ally in the fight to improve education, has backed a silly report here. Too bad.

  2. National Association for Gifted Children

    Groundbreaking Study Confirms
    Nation is Shortchanging Our Brightest Students

    WASHINGTON (June 18, 2008) – A national study released today by the Fordham Institute confirms our nation continues to neglect the learning needs of gifted students. Joyce VanTassel-Baska, Past President of the National Association for Gifted Children and member of the study’s peer-review panel issued the following statement:

    “As our nation makes significant gains boosting the performances of low-achieving students, we continue to shortchange our gifted students. Settling for stagnation or modest learning gains penalizes gifted learners, especially underserved students whose needs continue to go unmet, and jeopardizes our nation’s future as we struggle to compete in the global economy.

    “Especially alarming are findings that our nation’s teachers do not consider themselves prepared to meet the unique learning needs of gifted students, nor do they feel encouraged by the system to focus on cultivating the talents of our gifted learners. While no one will dispute the critical need of increasing proficiency for students at the lowest levels, doing so at the expense of high-performing students – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds – only perpetuates the cycle of inequality and results in continued underperformance in the classroom.

    “I hope this study serves as a wake-up call if we as a nation are truly committed to leaving no child behind and investing in students from all ability levels to maximize their potential. Nothing less than our future is at stake.”

  3. john thompson

    This has been a great week for dueling manifestos. First, we had the EPIs Bolder Broader Challenge vs. the EPEs Ode to Testing.

    Now we have the Fordham Executive Summary vs. the Fordham main report. Its not unusual for a press release to spin a study’s results as to make them incomprehensable, but this Fordham vs. Fordham dueling manifestos is in a new league.

    The Main report explains the difference as it explains the definition of NCLB period. The NCLB period for Math and elementary Reading was defined as 2000 to 2007. This means that NCLB gets credit for producing gains that occurred before NCLB. Those gains slowed after NCLB.

    Because of timing of NAEP testing, 8th grade Reading is defined as 2002 to 2007, which has the benefit of being a reality-based definition. So, Reading scores of the bottom 10 percentile decreased by 3%.

    If the purpose of NCLB is gaming the system, then numbers for the bottom 10 percentile show success. If the purpose is increasing elementary test scores, then its a success. If the purposed is real learning that persists into middle school at least, then the jury is out. Given the sorry state of math teaching skills of high poverty elementary teachers over the generations, it is no surprise that all of the extra funding and energy has shown some results.

    But the real test should be the Reading scores of middle schools and above. To get an honest though disappointing appraisal, you have to read the main report, not the Executive Summary.

  4. Constructive Feedback

    I am amazed how some people attempt to have it both ways as they attempt to assail their real target – No Child Left Behind.

    On the one had you have the Jonathan Kozol group of individuals who make the case that no “suburban” school system would ever allow the rote type of policies that NCLB has influenced many urban school systems to implement into their particular school systems. Kozol even makes the case about how instruction was better prior to NCLB. In his recent book he told of a group of 3rd graders who he followed up to their present 7th grade status. He blamed NCLB for their inability to hold an articulate conversation with their teacher. The fact that she had to “teach to the test” eliminated valuable time in which they used to form bonds via classroom conversation between teacher and student….again in the narrative put forth by Kozol and others.

    Now you have a group as we see here claiming that NCLB has caused damage to the high performing students. Is NCLB – this UNDERFUNDED Federal Program which has been implemented in the context of a Federal government that still only contributes between 7 and 8% of a public school’s funding responsible for the damage that this group claims?

    How can this same program be sub-comprehensive and yet domineering both at the same time?

    There is little doubt that NCLB is used as the political whipping boy per one’s interests in advocating some other set of policies that they find more desireable.

  5. Steve Farkas

    Nice writeup here. I understand all the focus on NCLB, it’s a law, it’s got resources, it’s a definable ‘something’ to argue about. The survey of teachers in the study suggests that the pressure to raise test scores of low achievers leads to some neglect of high achievers. But it also suggests other reasons for neglect. For example, teachers get little preparation or training in how to teach advanced kids. For another, the trend toward less segmentation by ability, teachers believe, has a negative impact on the advanced kids. Most striking to me in conducting the focus groups was the feeling that there was no plan, no real strategy, as far as teachers could see. The schools — especially those districts that are not wealthy — are not thinking about this issue much. If you don’t think about a group of students, you won’t do much with them. NCLB or no NCLB Act.

  6. Pingback: Economics for Teachers

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