For nearly two decades, public school educators have been trying to close, or at least narrow, the race- and income-based achievement gaps in graduation rates and test scores. The movement, which became a mandate with passage of the No Child Left Behind Act during President George W. Bush's first term, has become an obsession.
For several years, supporters of the act, along with some early detractors, did not question the perceived benefits of NCLB. But that easy acceptance is changing.
The first serious doubts about the measure's effectiveness came after a 2008 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, which showed that from 2000 to 2007, progress for students who were the highest achievers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress did not increase, while progress for the lowest-achieving students greatly improved.
Now, Fordham has reaffirmed the 2008 findings and introduced more critical statistics in a new study, "Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude?" This study found that the federally mandated effort to make schools more accountable for increasing low-performing students' achievement may be harming the highest-performing students.
Researchers tracked the scores of approximately 82,000 students on the Measure of Academic Progress. They found that many high-performing students lose ground from the elementary grades to middle school and from middle school to high school.
Here is the question for U.S. educators: Is focusing on getting all students to be proficient on reading and math tests having unintended negative consequences? It is a tough question for many Americans to answer, because it goes to the core of our concept of equality.
Still, the mounting empirical evidence cannot be ignored.
"Is helping kids at the bottom improve hurting kids at the top?" Michael Petrilli said in an interview with Education Week. He is the executive vice president of the Fordham Institute and was a U.S. Education Department official when NCLB was written. "Let's be honest about the trade-offs. It doesn't make you a bad person or a racist. … We've been making good progress for kids at the bottom and for poor children and minority kids. It just can't be the only thing that we do."
Petrilli and others seriously question, for example, the effectiveness of the campaign to get as many students as possible, even if they have so-so academic records and questionable abilities, to take Advanced Placement courses. In Hillsborough County, for example, the school district has been criticized for aggressively steering so many average students into Advanced Placement courses regardless of whether they are prepared for college-level curriculum.
Who benefits when such students take these courses? Do high-achieving students suffer when teachers are forced to devote too much time to the lowest achievers?
Evidence shows that to relentlessly devote excessive time and resources to helping students at the bottom, many districts are scrapping programs such as afterschool science labs for Advanced Placement classes. High-achieving students lose out, and many excellent teachers are being let go or are being reassigned to courses to help lower-achieving students.
Is this a desirable trade-off?
At the national level, Education Week reports, Congress has eliminated $7.5 million for the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Program that serves gifted and high-achieving students. The cut was made to free up money to finance programs for the lowest-achieving students.
I support efforts to help our lowest achievers, but like Petrilli and others, I believe that we have tipped the scales and are ill-serving our highest achievers. As Americans — who believe in equality — we have a philosophical difficulty in grouping students by ability. Too many of us cannot accept the reality that high-achieving students should be permitted to go as high as they can when we divvy up federal and state funds for education.
In truth, it is a moral imperative for us to do as much for these students as we do for those at the bottom. This is not elitism or insensitivity. It is a simple calculation that if our highest-achieving children are shortchanged, we all suffer. We will lose our competitive edge in the world, and we may needlessly diminish our quality of life.