Gifted Students, Dopy Argument…And, Not "Gifted"? Then No Scientific Leadership For You!

This Washington Post op-ed by gifted education advocate Susan Goodkin about gifted children and No Child Left Behind is a great example of the tunnel vision that characterizes most edu-debates. Without getting into the whole debate about the wisdom of gifted programs a couple of thoughts:

First, while NCLB’s emphasis on gap closing could come at the expense of attention to gifted students it doesn’t axiomatically have to. Nevertheless, the false choice that is the backbone of the op-ed notwithstanding, advocates for gifted students would be better served if they’d acknowledge (a) the enormous inequities and glaring racial achievement gaps that exist today and the necessity of addressing them and (b) that gifted programs are not blameless here. In fact, minority students are substantially underrepresented in gifted programs. In fact, according to the best, though albeit imperfect, data from the Office of Civil Rights black students are only 41 percent as likely and Hispanic students 48 percent as likely as white students to be in gifted education programs. In other words, gifted education has a stake in the NCLB debate beyond just whining about it. And, since in some communities gifted programs served as a convenient way to keep affluent and white parents from leaving the school system implicitly perpetuating some of the disparities policymakers are wrestling with today, one could even argue that gifted advocates bear something of a burden to help out here…

Second, isn’t this emerging debate about gifted kids and NCLB an argument for more pluralism in public schooling and more customization? Kids are not all alike so why insist that the vast majority of public schools basically look, feel, and operate alike? Or, is the answer just to pay less attention to struggling students? Where are the gifted advocates on the debate about more choices in public education?

Finally, this statement gets at the underlying sentiment here which is why Eduwonk is not overly hopeful about a lot of attention to the two points above:

By forcing schools to focus their time and funding almost entirely on bringing low-achieving students up to proficiency, NCLB sacrifices the education of the gifted students who will become our future biomedical researchers, computer engineers and other scientific leaders.

Did it ever occur to Ms. Goodkin that perhaps some of the roughly half of minority kids who don’t finish high school on time with a degree or maybe some of the minority students who finish high school trailing four-grade levels behind their white peers might also be candidates to become our future biomedical researchers, computer engineers and other scientific leaders if they were given a decent education and a fair chance?

Update: Over at The Washington Monthly Paul Glastris weighs-in on this story and touts value-added assessment as a solution. There are some good arguments for value-added but is this really one of them? The argument Goodkin basically makes is that the consequences for not improving the achievement of under-performing pupils are driving teachers and school officials to focus on these students at the expense of gifted students. Proponents of value-added say implementing it won’t reduce the pressure on schools to improve the achievement of struggling students and close the gaps. So even with a value-added measurement system, if there continue to be real consequences for continuing to fail with disadvantaged and minority students aren’t schools and teachers going to continue to focus on them as they do now to avoid the consequences? What’s going to change? In other words, if you accept the argument that the consequences in the policy are driving teacher/administrator behavior in schools – for good or ill – which most people including Eduwonk accept, then the issue is the consequences.

As a matter of designing the policy, either you lessen the consequences (which are not as draconian as you’d believe from the public debate) or you deal with the problem of ensuring that schools are meeting the needs of a broader range of students. Doing so is less a measurement problem than a curricular, governance, and teaching one. And again, Goodkin’s op-ed is not very reassuring about the gifted lobby’s commitment on the equity side of the equation. Glastris says that progressives should be shouting from the rooftop about the gifted issue that Goodkin raises. Eduwonk has to disagree, it’s an issue but progressives should be shouting about the equity problem and the unwillingness to really take steps to address achievement gaps, that’s the national scandal here.

Politics 101: Of course, one solution here is to use value-added to sanction schools for not doing well with high-performing students. That’s the way to use consequences to do what Glastris wants. But politically if the choice is lessening consequences for failing disadvantaged kids or increasing them for affluent suburban schools that are not adding a lot of value, or even just doing the latter, what do you think is going to happen?

Update II: Matt Yglesias joins-in here:

Insofar as we’re serious about educational equality, that will to some extent involve shortchanging the best and the brightest. Insofar as we’re serious about taking the most talented as far as they can go, that will involve shortchanging equity. The former strikes me as more desirable than the latter, especially for people who want to think of themselves as being on the left.

Update III: EdWahoo’s hyper-talented Haspel (who is off to TFA next year) wins the best headline award. And Jacobs says this is nothing new.

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