Gifted Redux

Over at The Washington Monthly Paul Glastris responds to Eduwonk’s criticism of his praise of yesterday’s Washington Post op-ed about gifted students. Paul asks:

As a matter of pure politics, how can you expect to retain public support for a school reform regime that short-changes high-achieving students, whose parents, whether rich or poor, are likely to be more politically engaged and influential than the parents of low-performing students?

Again, it does not have to short-change them, good schools can do both especially in the early grades but we do not yet have enough such schools. Nonetheless, Paul’s asking the right question though Eduwonk thinks the answer is greater choice and customization within the public system and improving the supply side of the equation. No Child Left Behind – NCLB – essentially mandates that states establish a minimal level of proficiency and get all kids over that bar. Over time state standards may become more rigorous but for now they’re a floor that we should want students to go way beyond. But mandating how schools go beyond it in national or even state policy is a minefield and politically very difficult.

The crude way is just a higher bar but that just means a reprise of this debate but about a different standard. The more sophisticated way is to measure the value schools add for all students, even advanced ones. But leave aside all the technical challenges of value-added assessment — which few of its enthusiastic boosters bother to engage with — it’s not a political panacea either. For starters, just as affluent parents refuse to accept that there are big achievement gaps in some of their kids schools they likewise won’t accept that these schools are not adding as much value to their children’s education as they could. In fact, because value-added is more complicated than the current system it seems it will be a harder sell to affluent parents if it somehow indicates anything besides rosy news. After all, they paid good money to live in those neighborhoods with those “great” schools. And, the risk that value-added could lead to lower expectations for poor and minority kids is very real.

It’s worth remembering that at its core NCLB is really the federal Title I program which was, and is, designed to be compensatory not to be a program for the affluent and the gifted. That’s not to say gifted students should be neglected, just that looking to Title I or NCLB is missing the point of the policy. And although there has been language about “substantial and continuous improvement” in the law that is intended to ensure that proficiency is not the ceiling it hasn’t done much good. That’s because the inability to do this in practice speaks to one of the most serious and infrequently publicly discussed issues in education — the lack of ability within the system today (pdf) to do these things now. Don’t forget, as a legal/policy matter states could do a lot of this now, there is nothing in NCLB preventing it. And again, that’s not a measurement problem but a pipeline one. And it is one where gifted advocates and advocates for disadvantaged students should make common cause to head off the false choice between helping one group of students or another.

Paul also pushes back on Matt Yglesias’ notion that the moral thing to do is to focus on the most struggling students. Paul says:

If I were an innercity teacher and I had to decide which students to give extra time to, I can easily see myself deciding to focus on the smarter, more motivated ones, on the grounds that they want the help more and the investment in them would have a higher chance of paying off in terms of increased life chances. Others might make a different moral calculus, but it’s not clear why mine would be wrong.

Perhaps, but the entire point of NCLB is to end this practice. For starters, it turns out that teachers are not always great judges of who are the smarter and more motivated students and teacher and student expectations often diverge. Moreover, NCLB isn’t saying that every student needs to be a mathematician or scientist, only that schools must teach them to read and do math at grade level. That’s really not unreasonable for the overwhelming majority of students, is it?

But in the end, this seems to be where marrying choice and options for parents with public accountability makes a lot of sense. Mandate a floor for all schools but give parents greater choices among public options so they can seek out schools that are doing a lot more. And, as Glastris has noted, giving parents more choices in public education is one way to create a genuine opportunity expanding ownership society rather than the caricature President Bush has championed.

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