Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Achievement Gap

When I received my "training" in the Teaching Fellows program, one suggestion that interested me was "teaching to the top".  If the standards are great, and the curriculum is not watered down, the students will rise to the challenge.  That was exactly why I entered teaching, because I knew that kids could meet high expectations.

At the start of my pedagogical career, in the days before high-stakes testing, I heeded this advice, because I had this luxury.  I would offer the children the choice to succeed or fail at the beginning of the year, and tell them how they could do either.  Then, they were left to make the decision on their own, and I wouldn't force anyone who didn't participate to do so.  Those who were below standards but wanted to learn, I would help, and they would score higher.  If a child wasn't interested in learning, I made sure they understood the consequences of their actions, but as long as they didn't interfere with other students' learning, I let them alone, and they would score lower.

This is not how learning occurs
 Nowadays, however, the stakes are raised.  Every day there is a new report or allegation about cheating on standardized tests, from students, to teachers, administrators, and school chancellors.  It is no surprise, since teachers and schools are under constant threat of job loss and school closures if scores do not rise.  I am now held accountable for the students who don't care to learn.  So, my focus has shifted from teaching to the top and assisting the strugglers, to teaching to the disinterested and getting nowhere.  And what happens to the students who are on or beyond grade level?  What happens to the students are there learn but do so at a slower pace.  Not much, sadly.

An uncelebrated factor in America's fall from educationaly preeminence is that we are now focusing on the lowest performing students, the ones that are not engaged or interested in learning.  "The unmistakable message to teachers -- and to students -- is that it makes no difference whether a child barely meets the proficiency standard or far exceeds it.".  While doing research about gifted students, I found a plethora of information that teachers can implement in their classrooms.   Some ideas from this Scolastic article:
Getting closer...

  • Look for strategies and methodologies
  • Set up plans for independent study
  • Prepare students for AP classes
  • Direct volunteers to assist
  • Research and write about a topic on a wiki (my personal favorite)
  • Work with parents to get kids involved in after-school activities
  • Give students open-ended questions and assignments
  • Encourage teachers to team up and find an ideal partner in another grade
  • Differentiate for high achievers  
Uh-huh.  There have plenty of reports that recommend addressing the needs of the gifted, and administrations urge teachers to push the top students, but there is no federal or state law mandating specialized programs for the brightest students.  In fact, the only money given to states to implement such programs for all U.S. schools, including colleges, was 9.6 million in grants in 2007, which were consistently vetoed and never guaranteed.  There are 99,000 public elementary, middle and high schools, so without factoring in colleges, that works out to $100 per year per school.  That is the cost of two hours of a teacher's time.  Obviously, we do not value the gifted, and it is to our detriment.
We need to mandate gifted programs.  Districts facing budget shortfalls and threatened with financial punishment are not about to use the funds they do have to address the brightest students.  Teachers, already stressed and overworked, are not going to spend their resources planning for those who are already proficient, at the risk of losing their jobs. 

The question of whether American education should be of concern to the federal government was decided definitively in the Spunik era.  The nation saw then the need to develop the talents of best and the brightest as a solution to the space race and, by design, to enhance American's way of life overall.  Even before this period, the needs of the academically advanced were met by "skipping" grades.  Whatever remains of gifted programs will soon be obliterated by NCLB.  In our rush to meet the needs of everyone, we lost our way in leading the world.  We are content to let other countries lead from now on.  It's a shame for me as a teacher, a pity for my inquisitive and bright daughter, too bad for society as a whole and for America's future. 


  1. Couldn't agree more. Data data data for rti and those who are not performing. No time or money or ideas to help raise the bar for the bright ones!



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