Friday, December 5, 2014

Is Education Reform Holding High Achievers Back?

In the push to close the achievement gap and ensure equal access and opportunity to all students, the community that supports advanced learning has legitimate fears that the needs of America's highest achieving students are being ignored. The basic belief around "Gifted & Talented," or advanced learners, is that "they will be all right." However, scholar and educator Charles Finn is not so sure. In fact, he is deeply concerned that the country's highest achieving students are being harmed by the recent attention the Department of Education and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has put on "access to advanced classes."

Five points deserve attention.

First, in going after practices that separate kids on the basis of achievement, OCR will confound and cripple every educator’s favorite reform du jour, “differentiated instruction.” Because in the real world of middle schools with 200 sixth-graders, differentiation doesn’t mean true individualization. It means various forms of ability grouping.

Second, the U.S. is already having huge trouble paying attention to high achievers (some say “gifted and talented”) when we’re preoccupied with low achievers and dire schools. Anything that discourages such attention is bad for American economic growth and competitiveness, not to mention unfair to kids who are ready, willing, and able to soar but have trouble getting the teacher’s attention. (Disparate impact at the expense of high achievers and smart kids is apparently just fine with OCR.)

Third, some forms of “tracking” are good for poor kids, minority kids, and low achievers seeking a path to upward mobility. If anything, we need more of it in high-poverty schools. As Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution has shown, those are the schools least likely to give their high achievers (who are also poor and minority kids) chances to accelerate and to learn with other high achievers.
At the high school level, “voc ed” has a bad name, and old-style tracking led to a lot of dead ends. But what about high-quality career and technical education for young people who want a good job but don’t necessarily want to go to a conventional college—or who haven’t been educated well enough in the early and middle grades to thrive in an AP classroom? Aren’t they going to get further if they have access to classes designed for them? At the very least, the choice of such classes?

Indeed, if OCR (and the Education Department more broadly) were as interested in giving people school choices as in deciding what’s good for them, I’d be a lot less apprehensive. But they’re not. They’ve been throwing monkey wrenches into all sorts of choice programs and policies because they think they know better where people belong.

Fourth, of course we want to see more minority kids succeed in AP classes and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, just as we want to see more boys succeed in English and girls in physics. Insofar as the education system is capable of achieving these goals, however, it needs to strive comprehensively from kindergarten (or preschool) onward. Swatting high schools because elementary schools didn’t send them an ethnically balanced collection of kids ready for AP and IB does not accomplish any educationally desirable end.

Fifth, consider the likelihood that OCR’s threats may have the unintended effect of encouraging white and Asian families to decamp (more than they’ve already done) for predominantly white and Asian schools. Then, of course, there won’t be racial gaps in access to educational resources—because kids of other races won’t even be present.

To be sure, schools and communities must take measures to guarantee access and opportunity. However, the push must not come at the cost of slowing schools, classes, and instruction down in order to allow all students to catch up.

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