Thursday, June 19, 2008 Tough Choices

Andrew Rotherham notes that in education, as it other walks of life and particuarly in politics, there are tough choices to be made, priority lists to be prepared and programs created to address those priorities. The inevitable result, of course, is that some priorities don't get addressed.

Rotherham's comments come on the debate about a new Fordham Foundation report that notes that high achieving kids aren't faring so well under NCLB. To be honest, I am not all that surprised. This is where Rotherham's touch choices come into play:
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.
I don't fault NCLB's policy goals, that of identifying and closing the achivement gap. But the necessity of focusing on those at the bottom of the achievement pile, means that schools that are worried about that fail to adequately address those who are at the pinnacle of the achievement pinnacle. However, I don't think we should be so surprised.

There is a certain assumption that students who are at the top end of the achievement scale will always be there; that these students whether by talent, self-motivation or good fortune will always be good students. But there is a major problem with this mind set, it assumes that the schools don't need to do much, if anything, to keep these students engaged. The wrong-headedness of this idea is almost too simple to explain. I don't think the schools necessarily need to spend more time or money on gifted students, but without a program to address their needs, you end up with bright but bored children. Bright and bored children get into trouble because they have the imagination and wherewithal to create mischief.

That is not to say that smart kids are just minutes away from being troublemakers, but can you blame these children and their families for believing that they are getting the short shrift in the schools when the overwhelming focus is on achieving AYP, such that these students, who routinely score advanced on proficiency tests, get angry and frustrated at spending days and weeks on test prep for a test they will pass with flying colors and the schools expect them to pass with flying colors.

I am not sure of the proper policy prescription, but it has to start with the recognition that these students are just as special and just as important as the borderline kids whose success on the standardized tests can make or break a school.


Henry Cate said...

"I don't think the schools necessarily need to spend more time or money on gifted students ..."

I do.

It should be at least somewhat roughly at the same level. Cheri Yecke reported in The War on Excellence that the bottom 5% or so got something like ten times as much as the top 5%.

Given the potential for really benefiting our society, we could argue that it ought to be the other way around.

Henry Cate said...

Oh, just to be clear. I think roughly the same amount of money should be spent on each child.