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 fiat the United States’
long-standing achievement gap: the dramatic differences in test scores
between white and minority students and between middle-class and poor
youngsters. The message to schools was unmistakable: Get more poor and
minority children into your advanced courses or risk legal action by
Uncle Sam.

Then, in September, the president offered states and school districts
flexibility around onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act —
linked to certain conditions. Among these: States must explain how they
are going to move more students into “challenging” courses. The effect
will be yet another push to dilute high-level classes.

The goal of helping more young people succeed in challenging
coursework is laudable. But pushing ill-prepared students into tougher
classes without adequate preparation isn’t doing anyone any favors.

Indeed, the administration’s strategy has been tried. Nationally, the
number of graduates who had taken Advanced Placement exams rose from 1
million students in 2003 to 1.6 million in 2008. In a 2009 study of AP teachers,
just 14 percent of educators said that the growth stemmed from an
increase in the pool of qualified students. Half of the AP teachers in
high-poverty schools said that their African American and Hispanic
students were not prepared for AP instruction. Fifty-six percent said
that too many students were in over their heads, with adverse
consequences for those students and their better-prepared classmates.

Our single-minded focus on closing achievement gaps has almost
certainly hurt our top students. In 1996, Rand Corp. scholars determined
that low-achieving pupils benefit when placed in mixed-ability
classrooms, faring about five percentage points better than those placed
in lower-track classes, but that high-achievers score six percentage
points worse in such general classes.

In 2008, six years after No Child Left Behind became law, a survey of
teachers found 60 percent saying that struggling students were a “top
priority” at their schools, while just 23 percent said the same of
“academically advanced” students. Eighty percent said that struggling
students were most likely to get one-on-one attention from teachers;
only 5 percent said the same of advanced students.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation
Association released a study in September that tracked more than
100,000 high-achieving pupils over time
and found that more than one-third lost steam as they progressed
through school. The Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless has reported
that, while the nation’s lowest-achieving students made significant
gains in reading and math between 2000 and 2007, top students’ gains were “anemic.”

There are trade-offs here. But the possibility that what’s best for
our worst-off students is bad for high achievers is blithely ignored by
the Obama team and many other school reformers. (To be fair, it was
ignored by the Bush team, too.) Advocates with a single-minded focus on
closing achievement gaps have insisted that what’s good for the neediest
kids is best for all kids. Those who question this mantra risk being
labeled racist.

It’s not like we can afford to coast. Just 6 percent of U.S. eighth-graders scored “advanced” on the 2007 international Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study assessment, while many nations fared at least twice that well.

Implemented thoughtfully, a commitment to getting more students into
advanced classes is an objective worthy of a great nation. But it’s not
going to happen overnight — not without defining “excellence” down.

At this very moment, millions of high-achievers are waiting to be
challenged. Meeting their needs is another objective worthy of a great
nation. They deserve our encouragement, not our indifference.

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