High Achievers

One big idea animates virtually all of today’s earnest education reformers: the conviction that great schools can spur social mobility. Voucher supporters, charter advocates, standards nuts, teacher-effectiveness fanatics—we all fundamentally believe that fantastic schools staffed by dedicated educators can help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers. And then Charles Murray comes along and throws cold water all over the idea.

Can fantastic schools staffed by dedicated educators actually help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers?

This was my reaction last month when Murray visited the Fordham Institute to talk about his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Among his many interesting and provocative comments about the rise of a “new upper class”—one inhabited by the winners of America’s meritocracy—he made this rather disturbing statement: “The better the meritocracy, the faster social mobility will decline.” Checker Finn, our president and moderator, did a double-take. “Say it again?” So Murray did. “The better the meritocracy, the more efficiently you identify and reward talent, the faster that social mobility will decline over time.”

As it turns out, this wasn’t the first time Murray has made that argument. An earlier version can be found in his controversial book, The Bell Curve, written with Richard Hernnstein, and then restated in a 2010 Washington Post op-ed:

The more efficiently a society identifies the most able young people of both...

Drop-out recovery charter schools annually serve about 20 percent of Ohio’s charter students but have never been held accountable for the performance of their students. Ohio’s Senate Bill 316 (SB 316) would change this by requiring the creation and enforcement of standards for these schools. The legislation empowers Ohio’s Board of Education to set accountability standards but also leaves open what these standards will actually be. Yesterday, however, the House education committee amended the bill so that drop-out recovery schools will not be subject to the state’s automatic closure law for charter schools.

As the House considers the bill this week, lawmakers need to balance the demand for high standards for recovery charters with the unique student composition and testing challenges associated with these schools. Further, lawmakers should understand the benefit of drop-out recovery schools to the graduation rates of traditional public high schools.

First, by definition, drop-out recovery charters primarily serve dropouts or students at risk of dropping out. This fact alone requires a different perspective of what “student achievement” means—and the approaches required for student success. Because dropout recovery charters enroll mostly high-poverty and highly underperforming students, an apple-to-apples comparison of dropout recovery charter performance to traditional high school standards of success seems unreasonable.

Second, legislators should consider how dropout recovery charters actually benefit public school districts. They do this is a couple ways: first, by enrolling students who would have otherwise dropped out of education completely, recovery charters improve public school district’s graduation rates. Consider, for example,...

This week, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that guarantees high-achieving students a number of accelerated learning opportunities—such as skipping a grade—while making sure parents and kids know how they can take advantage of such possibilities. The measure was championed by State Representative John Legg, who feared that talented students were going through school unchallenged while principals focused on bringing low achievers to proficiency. While other initiatives, such as Advanced Placement programs and dual-enrollment efforts, provide valuable options to top students, studies have shown acceleration to be particularly effective. Yet many educators resist such policies because of (mostly unfounded) fears of negative social consequences for students. Without being overly prescriptive, the new Florida law requires school districts to, at minimum, offer whole-grade and mid-year promotion for eligible students as well as early graduation options. We’re always queasy when states create mandates around schools’ instructional policies, but this might be a case in which a little nudge from above will prod districts to do right by their high-achieving students.

Fast-Track Academic Path Approved in Florida,” Sean Cavanagh, Education Week Charters & Choice blog, April 30, 2012.

Are Bad Schools Immortal? Groundhog Day Event

Are Bad Schools Immortal?

When it comes to low-performing schools, we seem to be witnessing the same thing over and over—not unlike the classic movie, Groundhog Day.Ground Hog Day

A recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute tracked about 2,000 low-performing schools and found that the vast majority of them remained open and remained low-performing after five years. Very few were significantly improved. So, are failing schools fixable?

Join the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for a lively and provocative debate about that question. Fordham VP Mike Petrilli will moderate, and the discussion will be informed, in part, by Fordham's study, Are Bad Schools Immortal? The Scarcity of Turnarounds and Shutdowns in Both Charter and District Sectors.

The central problem besetting K-12 education in the United
States today is still—as for almost thirty years now—that far too few of our
kids are learning nearly enough for their own or the nation’s good. And the
gains we’ve made, though well worth making, have been meager (and largely
confined to math), are trumped by gains in other countries, and evaporate by
the end of high school.

From where I sit, the basic strategies
aren’t ill-conceived. Rather, they’ve been stumped, stymied, and
constrained by formidable barriers that are more or less built into the
K-12 system as we know it.

This much everybody knows. But unless we want to live out
the classic definition of insanity (“doing the same thing over again with the
expectation that it will produce a different result”), we need to focus
laser-like on the barriers that keep us from making major-league gains. If we
don’t break through (or circumnavigate) these barriers, academic achievement
will remain stagnant.

The barriers I’m talking about are not cultural issues,
parenting issues, demographic issues, or other macro-influences on educational
achievement. Those are all plenty real, but largely beyond the reach of public
policy. No, here I refer to obstacles that competent leaders and bold policymakers
could reduce or eradicate if they were serious.

How much difference would that really make? It’s possible,
of course, that we’re pursuing the wrong core strategies....

This post, by Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and AEI’s Rick Hess, was originally published in the Washington Post.

President Obama’s remarks on inequality, stoking populist anger at
“the rich,” suggest that the theme for his reelection bid will be not
hope and change but focus on reducing class disparity with government
help. But this effort isn’t limited to economics; it is playing out in
our nation’s schools as well.

The issue is whether federal education efforts will compromise
opportunities for our highest-achieving students. One might assume that a
president determined to “win the future” would make a priority of ensuring that our ablest kids have the chance to excel.

To Obama, however, as for President George W. Bush, such concerns are
a distraction at best. Last year the Education Department’s civil
rights division announced that it would investigate local school
policies that have a “disparate impact
on poor or minority students — signaling a willingness to go to court
if department officials think that school systems have too few of such
children in gifted programs or Advanced Placement courses. This bit of
social engineering ignores the unseemly reality that advantaged children
are statistically more likely to be ready to succeed in tough classes
than are low-income children raised in households with fewer books and
more television.

The result is a well-intended but
misguided crusade to solve via administrative...

Last week, the Departments of Education and Justice released new guidance for school districts and institutions of higher education
on constitutionally-sound ways to encourage racial diversity and avoid
racial isolation. As I’ve written before, I’m a fan of well-conceived
efforts (like “controlled choice” a la Kahlenberg) to promote school
integration, and I think Washington, D.C. is sorely in need of such an approach. (That’s what D.C. parents should be fighting for–not an end to school choice.)

Furthermore, on “local flexibility” grounds, I’m willing to give
school districts some leeway if they want to make school integration a
high priority.

That said, the guidance
for elementary and secondary education includes some odious and
potentially damaging suggestions for America’s 150-odd
academically-selective public high schools–including powerhouses like
New York’s Stuyvesant and Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson:

Some school districts have schools or programs to which
students apply and are selected through a competitive admissions
process. School districts seeking to achieve diversity or avoid racial
isolation may develop admissions procedures for competitive schools or
programs to further those interests.

Example 1: A school district could identify
race-neutral criteria for admission to a school (e.g., minimum academic
qualifications and talent in art) and then conduct a lottery for all
qualified applicants rather than selecting only those students with the
highest scores under the admission criteria, if doing so would help to
achieve racial

Guest Blogger

As part of the release of our new study, Do High Flyers Maintain Their Performance: Performance Trends of Top Students, we are hosting a forum for experts to respond to its findings. Today's guest is ASCD's Jessica Hockett .

This report attempts to answer the critical and largely-neglected question of how high-performing students are faring in the NCLB-era classroom. The findings speak to the messy and inconvenient reality that individual students' abilities are not fixed, nor their development predictable. For better and worse, changes in a learner's academic achievement occur both?because and in spite of what and how he or she is taught.

Systematic reform efforts of the past two decades have fallen far short of encouraging teachers to expect the best from and provide high-end challenge for learners across the academic spectrum. Unfortunately, many children below, at, and beyond grade-level standards are settling for less than the highest quality curriculum and instruction in the name of serving struggling students well.

Our schools would surely see more growth at every performance level if educators were provided with training and support in how to teach all learners as though they were the highest of flyers. At minimum, all teachers should be equipped to plan lessons that emphasize conceptual understanding and application, leverage classroom-level formative assessment results, and use strategies that attend to individual differences. The culprit of stagnation and regression is not...

"Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students," is the first study to examine the performance of America’s highest-achieving children over time at the individual-student level. Produced in partnership with the Northwest Evaluation Association, it finds that many high-achieving students struggle to maintain their elite performance over the years and often fail to improve their reading ability at the same rate as their average and below-average classmates. The study raises troubling questions: Is our obsession with closing achievement gaps and “leaving no child behind” coming at the expense of our “talented tenth”—and America’s future international competitiveness? Read on to learn more.

What people are saying

"This study is important, very important!" - Jim Bohannon The Jim Bohannon Show

"This report attempts to answer the critical and largely-neglected question of how high-performing students are faring in the NCLB-era classroom. The findings speak to the messy and inconvenient reality that individual students’ abilities are not fixed, nor their development predictable. For better and worse, changes in a learner’s academic achievement occur both because and in spite of what and how he or she is taught." - Jessica Hockett is an education consultant and Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) faculty member specializing in differentiated instruction, curriculum design for academically diverse classrooms, and education for...

Guest Blogger

We asked a few experts to weigh in on our new study, "Do High Flyers Maintain Their Performance: Performance Trends of Top Students," as part of an online forum we'll be hosting on Flypaper over the next couple days. Here is a guest post by Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

These results are distressing, but not surprising. As I note in my forthcoming essay "Our Achievement Gap Mania" (appearing Wednesday in National Affairs), the past decade's relentless focus on "gap-closing" has pushed all other considerations to the periphery. We have to make choices, but self-interest and a proper respect for all children demands that we wrestle at length with how we prioritize the needs of some kids over those of others. Yet "gap-closing" has become a reflexive, bipartisan project. Would-be reformers talk of little else and to even question the priorities of gap-closing is to be, at best, deemed ill-informed and, at worst, branded a racist.

Gap-closing has become the lexicon of federal officials and funders, of advocates and analysts. It has fueled funding priorities, shaped federal programs, driven policies, and informed practice. It has had real consequences and now we see, thanks to the careful efforts of Xiang et al., that some of these are problematic. (I'm curious what the results would have been if Xiang et al. had been able to examine the growth of high-flyers in subjects like science or foreign...